The post-apocalypse is passé. Not a month goes by without some tale of grim men treading irradiated roads hitting screens. People openly fantasize about life after the bombs fall, imagining themselves as sturdy can-do heroes battling their way through insane mohawked punks that look like they’ve wandered out of a Final Fight arcade cabinet. The stench of familiarity has set in.
The Survivalist takes a more sober view of life after civilization crumbles – and it’s not pretty. Set in Northern Ireland, the titular Survivalist (Martin McCann) lives a miserable, lonely life in an isolated woodland shack. He spends his days desperately tending a vegetable patch so as not to starve to death. Justifiably paranoid, he keeps his shotgun on him at all times, dreading having to use one of the two shells he has left.
One day, two women, the middle-aged Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) and teenage Milja (Mia Goth), show up, hoping to barter for something to eat. Riddled with suspicion, the survivalist keeps a shotgun aimed in their direction at all times. They offer to let him sleep with Milja for food. He agrees, and soon an uneasy alliance is formed. But the first lesson of the wasteland is to trust no-one, something our survivalist should bear in mind at all times.
While watching, I had the recurring thought of, “man, I really appreciate civilization.” It’s an odd notion, sure – after all, post-apocalyptic settings are generally used as a vehicle for dick-waving power fantasies. The Survivalist‘s more realistic tack shows us what a world would really be like without laws, community and social boundaries. The conclusion? Depressing and futile, a world where you can spend countless hours trying to coax some potatoes from unpromising soil only to have some dickhead stamp all over them and there’s literally nothing you can do about it.
This omni-grimness makes The Survivalist an austere watch. Long stretches are spent silently watching the protagonist busy himself around his shack, recycling his urine, sorting through his meagre possessions and fashioning gardening equipment out of the junk that surrounds him. Even when company arrives, conversation doesn’t exactly sparkle: mutual paranoia and murderous tendencies not really being conducive to sparkling bon mots.
All this misery feels believable: the set looks genuinely lived in and costuming has a focus on dowdy, frayed practicality. But the core is Martin McCann’s startling on-edge performance. In the way his wide eyes search the edges of the frame for any signs of trouble, you sense he’s lived a hard, traumatizing life. For all his grit, he’s an intensely vulnerable hero, physically and emotionally. You pity his circumstances rather than admire him, especially in early scenes as he forlornly caresses faded photographs, looking entirely miserable from tip to toe.
Conversely, Fouere and Goth’s characters play their cards pretty close to their chest, but you can’t help but sketch in an imaginary backstory. They look as if they’ve wandered in from their own narrative, each subtle glance to each other speaking volumes as to their past encounters across the wastes. Much of the film is watching the subtle shifts in the trio’s relationship: suspicion turning to trust, allegiances silently switching and grudging respect slowly building.
Though a scaled-down, low-budget apocalypse, it’s an exceptionally intelligently produced movie. After all, you don’t need a million bucks to make a damp shack in the middle of the woods look believable. As practically all of the film is set in this one location, imagination begins to fill in the blanks as to what’s going on in the world beyond the woods, though the desperate gangs of rapists and thieves don’t bode well.
This makes it a bit disappointing when, in the final act, we briefly leave the woods and get a sniff of the bigger picture. Nothing the film can show us can live up to our imagination, and, annoyingly, it all looks rather sedate. It’s a classic case of less is more and of the value of ambiguity in storytelling.
Still, it’s important to remember that The Survivalist is writer/director Stephen Fingleton’s feature film debut, and any director that can cook up something this intense and evocative with limited means definitely deserves our attention.
Lean and mean, The Survivalist a realistically miserable apocalypse - and all the more terrifying for it.