There’s a reason audiences can’t get enough of the apocalypse. Stories about the end of days, about how men and women would fare in the face of societal collapse, compel for reasons both modern and ancient. How would people raised on easy access to technology survive if the power went out? Would a new stone age be the death of us, or would we resentfully learn to readjust? And what would that loss of connectivity mean for the fabric of civilization itself? Would humanity in isolation regress into savagery, or would we cling to our moral compasses with all our might?
Director Craig Zobel’s meditative, mesmerizing Z For Zachariah may not be the most action-packed of post-apocalyptic tales, but it has all these questions on its mind and more. Set in an Edenic valley that’s been mysteriously spared from the unexplained calamity that irradiated the rest of the planet, the film is masterfully minimalist but rich in thought-provoking symbolism. At its center is the resourceful, graceful Ann (Margot Robbie, incandescent), a preacher’s daughter left to tend her family’s land while the rest of her loved ones ventured outside the valley’s slopes to find other survivors. As played by Robbie, Ann is quiet and focused, radiating a wiry strength born out of faith. Her existence is a tranquil yet softly melancholy one – for all she knows, Ann might be the only person left alive, and her trusty dog may be the last of his kind, too.
All she has is her faith – that is, until a hunting excursion leads to her stumbling across Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a man of science who’s first glimpsed in a bulky radiation suit, trudging through the landscape without a drop of Ann’s innate dignity. Their first meeting is far from conflict-free – he draws a gun on her and nearly shoots her dead before she can tell him he’s unwittingly submerged himself in an irradiated waterfall – but when Ann takes it upon herself to nurse the stranger back to health, romance seems all but inevitable. This odd couple, her young and religious, him much older and strictly grounded in science and engineering, find hope and no small measure of happiness in one another’s company. Even when Loomis suggests tearing down Ann’s beloved chapel to construct a water wheel so they can harness electricity, the pair get on, and in these end-times, that’ll do.
Still, Zobel isn’t interested in a simple love story. Biblical allusions run rampant, but none more than the concepts of jealousy and original sin. And if Ann is Eve and Loomis is Adam, the snake comes in the form of Caleb (Chris Pine), a devastatingly handsome, wonderfully blue-eyed drifter who exudes the same masculinity and invigorated vitality Loomis, in his grizzled weariness, lacks. It’s no spoiler to say Caleb becomes the third part of a painfully believable love triangle, one rife with taut discussions, longing glances and outbursts of passion, but the ways in which the film’s three characters connect and collide are far from predictable.
For one, Loomis carries with him a dark secret he feels could spell the end of his relationship with Ann – and his suspicions of Caleb, who doesn’t even try to disguise the way he looks at Ann, threaten to send him down a very dangerous path. For another, Ann, even secure in her faith as she is, finds herself torn between lust and loyalty, with no clear right answers. Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi aren’t afraid to explore trickier themes than those in the Robert C. O’Brien novel they adapted, highlighting intriguing, complicated conflicts around race and age in addition to the expected undercurrents of attraction, mistrust and fatal flaws, and the film is all the better for its unexpectedly long reach.
Still, like any movie with a cast this small, Z For Zachariah lives and dies on the effectiveness of its central trio. And luckily for everyone involved, none of them miss a beat. Robbie, emerging here as a true star with a role drastically different to that of her brassy trophy wife in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, serves as the film’s beating heart, capturing Ann’s conflicted soul and innate goodness with a subtle and nuanced performance. Meanwhile, Ejiofor brings precise, delicate layers to his deeply troubled, alternately sympathetic and contemptible survivor, and Pine slithers between calculating and congenial with an agility that’s both impressive and more than a little unnerving.
The dramatic fireworks that the three actors work to set off are dazzling enough that Z For Zachariah, slow and deliberate as it may be, is never for a second boring. Zobel, much like in his 2012 psychological drama Compliance, excels at brewing menace in the background, like a distant storm cloud, without ever letting it fully engulf his characters. With commendable restraint and ingenuity, the director turns what could have been a trite romance into a cerebral, often scary dance between three damaged souls, all searching for connection and love in a world that promises little more than loneliness. And by the time the film’s understated, unsettling conclusion does roll around, with enough force to send you reeling, you’ll find yourself both agonized over its unanswered questions, and grateful it didn’t provide the answers you suspect lie just beneath its murky surface.
Z For Zachariah is a quietly provocative and perturbing slice of post-apocalyptic drama, distinguished by a trio of fine performances and its pervasive ambiguity.