Z for Zachariah: Review

Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine may be the last humans alive in Z for Zachariah. Read our review…

Post-apocalyptic films and stories remain endlessly fascinating to us because they pose several questions: what kind of society will emerge from the ashes, if any, and what kind of people will shape it? How would we respond personally to such a calamity – as decent human being or self-serving barbarian? Director Craig Zobel’s Z for Zachariah offers a glimpse of one possible scenario, reducing all the issues that haunt us today – race, sex, religion, science, politics – to three people, but the film’s answers remain frustratingly vague.

Based on a 1974 novel by the late Robert C. O’Brien (whose wife and daughter finished the book after his death, based on his notes), Z for Zachariah begins with Ann (Margot Robbie), a young woman living alone, with only a dog for company, on a farm in a beautiful, secluded valley. The valley and everything in it, it turns out, has somehow been shielded by its natural shape from the effects of a massive nuclear war that has decimated civilization; outside the valley radiation still reigns supreme. Ann is surviving but hardly thriving, making a rudimentary existence out of what she can cobble together from trips (wrapped in protective gear) to the abandoned town nearby.

That is until she comes across a man named Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who has survived being on the road by wearing a radiation-proof suit, on the far edge of her property. When he is accidentally dosed with radiation, she brings him to her house and nurses him back to health. Both are socially awkward and hesitant to trust at first. She explains that her father and brother went out looking for survivors one day and never came back; he carries a picture of a woman but doesn’t specify who she was. Ann allows him to stay, and with his knowledge they are able to begin elevating their life on the farm above a subsistence level.

And then a third figure enters the scene: Caleb (Chris Pine), a strapping young man who is respectful in all ways yet nevertheless seems suspicious to Loomis – especially when Caleb and Ann seem to take a shine to each other. Loomis and Ann have remained platonic until now, with Loomis himself resisting Ann’s overtures. But the attraction between her and Caleb – the two of them are both religious, both “country” people, while Loomis is an atheist and realist who is driven by logic – rankles Loomis even as Caleb seems to acquiesce to his leadership.

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The set-up has been used before (most notably in 1959’s The World, the Flesh and the Devil, which featured a similar trio – white male, white female, black male – to comment on race relations) although it’s interesting to note that O’Brien’s novel did not include the Caleb character, an addition by screenwriter Nissar Modi. While the book’s male-female dynamic is still in evidence, it’s expanded here: Loomis feels as if he has some sort of claim on Ann even though he has resisted doing anything himself, but put another man in the mix and all of a sudden he can’t stand it.

The shifting dynamics between the three are complicated, however, with Ann insisting that she loves Loomis even though she is drawn to Caleb. She and Caleb bond over their faith, making the godless Loomis terribly insecure – a metaphor for the tyranny of the majority even though they at least claim to respect Loomis’ views as well. And it’s Loomis who inevitably brings race into the relationship, alleging that Ann and Caleb are sticking together because of their skin color – although to be fair to them, there’s no real evidence of that.

All three actors deliver subtle, excellent performances. Robbie, stripped of all the glamour and sexy accoutrements of her roles in The Wolf of Wall Street and Focus, is authentically earthy and sincere as Ann, who is both innocent and yet increasingly aware of the power she potentially holds over both men, while also steadfast in her faith and will to survive. Ejiofor projects both a commanding presence and the sense of a man with feet of clay – he radiates intelligence, logic and can-do spirit while also exuding a disquieting level of tension, instability and even violence. Pine’s Caleb is also complex, the way he arrives instantly painting him as the villain until he is not, although his own motivations and potential for danger remain murky.

Zobel brought this kinds of human relationships to an intense boil with his previous feature, 2012’s Compliance, a movie that literally had me ready to scream at the screen even as I was aware of its hammer-into-nail tactics. With Z for Zachariah, he goes in the opposite direction, favoring restraint over all, and it works for a while. But the movie’s pace starts slow and stays that way, and while he builds the characters and their situation in a way that almost demands a more visceral or emotionally extreme payoff, he never gets there – going instead for a third act and a climax that feels like it wasn’t completely finished instead of carefully thought out.

Still, Z for Zachariah has a lot going for it, starting with those tremendous performances and Zobel’s calm direction and terrific eye (he and cinematographer Tim Orr have definitely made one of the most beautiful end-of-the-world films in recent memory). The movie’s refusal to paint anyone in simplistic black and white terms – pun intended, I suppose – is also refreshing, with none of the characters’ beliefs or intelligence called into question simply because we may not agree with them. While flawed, Z for Zachariah suggests that the same problems that hinder us before the apocalypse will keep dragging us down afterwards as well – a bleak but unfortunately realistic view of humanity no matter how many of us there are.

Z for Zachariah is out in theaters Friday (August 28).

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3.5 out of 5