In a near-future dystopia, an unexplained catastrophe has wiped out most of civilization and created a barren post-apocalyptic Earth. Radiation threatens most existence and those that do brave what are now scorched landscapes do so in protective suits or at their own peril. But in a remote Southern valley hidden in the mountains, a little pocket of paradise exists. A charitable and idealistic young woman, who might just be one of the last survivors, self-sufficiently tends to a bountiful farm that boasts uncontaminated water, crops and non-toxic air.
She’s the last of her kin, her preacher father and younger brother having ventured off years ago in search of others to never return. With only her Australian shepherd for company, her solitary existence is suddenly shattered when an ailing scientist searching for survivors in anti-radiation gear stumbles upon her utopian alcove. Sickened from polluted waters, after some initial hostility, Ann (Margot Robbie) saves Dr. John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and nurses him back to health. As Loomis slowly regains his strength, gets to know his kind nurse, learns her process for survival and assists with his own ideas and skills, a bond begins to form and maybe even something more.
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Just as a romantic element begins to blossom, the two survivors encounter a mysterious third in Caleb (Chris Pine). After it’s become clear that the younger and attractive Caleb means no harm, the dynamic shifts and a coiled tension begins to form. What was once a tender courtship between Ann and John, cautiously taking baby steps forward, is dramatically altered by Caleb’s presence.
A humanistic drama by director Craig Zobel (the comedic “Great Big World Of Sound,” the confrontational “Compliance”), the indie filmmaker uses what sounds like sci-fi-ish conceits for a story that is anything but. Easily Zobel’s most accomplished work with a self-assured simplicity that marks every frame, “Z For Zachariah” is nevertheless still uneven. Its craft can be impressive: Zobel’s film possesses a searing, slow burn tone that’s beautifully controlled. The movie is admirably patient and gives breathing room and space for these relationships to bloom believably and organically. But the build to a climax is far too slow and with little emotional payoff.
The arrival of Caleb telegraphs much of the movie’s intentions even though it’s largely nuanced. One could subtitle the ‘Zachariah’ ‘Two’s Company, Three’s A Crowd,’ and you’d essentially get the gist. As a drama that’s an exploration of human nature and the impulses between women and men, it’s clear where the narrative is heading and its inevitability isn’t anywhere near as striking as the film believes it is. While the love-triangle is well performed — Ejiofor and Robbie are particularly convincing as the hesitant couple whose life has been upended by a charming stranger — Zobel stumbles in the all-too foreseeable final act.
Frustratingly, the script’s narrative is predictable, but its characters are more delicately rendered. If the triangle is emotionally charged, it’s gracefully so with unspoken and furtive glances. While Caleb’s motivations are potentially dubious, in less mannered hands the character would be a conniving rogue. In Zobel’s movie he’s something more enigmatic and his calculated side is just as passive-aggressive as it is sinister.
Faith plays a large part in the film, both allegorically and literally. Faith bonds Ann and Caleb, and the lack of piety is what alienates John from Ann. Yet with all the biblical names, the church that acts as a source of restoration and the idea of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden being disrupted by the handsome devil, the archetypes get to be a bit much even if they’re not overtly drawn.
Luminously shot by Tim Orr (David Gordon Green’s longtime DP), “Z For Zachariah” is beautiful to look at. The distinguishing high-contrast, almost Instagram-filter looks at the ravaged towns below the mountains, next to the warmer hue of the trio’s farm of salvation. And while the movie features an elegant score by Heather McIntosh, the music occasionally overplays its hand in a few crucial moments and sometimes even strains to push emotions that haven’t been earned yet.
Even at a chaste ninety-five minutes, the deliberately paced ‘Zachariah’ feels maybe ten minutes too long. As the survivors’ heaven grows, as electricity is harnessed and the future seems bright, the preordained conflicts finally arrive. Strangely, in these last few minutes of a movie that has patiently observed its protagonists, the crucial narrative moments are rushed through and not quite convincing, which leaves a confused sensation for what suddenly has gone amiss. There’s also an odd sense of self-satisfaction about the film’s would-be profound ending. That fact that the conclusion is actually ho-hum and lifeless also offers a sour flavor.
“Z For Zachariah” is a commendable, quietly hushed and intimate drama about people that feels note-perfect for at least half the picture. Zobel exerts wonderful pitch over textured performances, feelings, and loaded fleeting looks. But the movie’s confident but underwhelming last act can’t convince quite as vigorously as the well-considered story that came before it. Perhaps Zobel’s crucial mistake is setting up the foundations for an electromagnetic triangle of combustion, but ultimately, the movie displays very few sparks. [B-]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival.