“It’s just crazy this is still here.”
Z for Zachariah is a lesson, both good and bad, in the importance of brevity. Its shot choices early on are inspiring, relying on brief, sometimes barely noticeable glimpses of detail and depth. And later on the film feels hurried. A beautiful life mercilessly cut short. Movies set in post-apocalyptic worlds are either based on action or the pursuit of regeneration. This is the latter, and chooses to emphasize the primal necessity that is human interaction. It posits that a world alone is not a world at all. We need some one, some thing, or at least the faint glimmer of hope that the possibility for either is within reach. Had it staged itself less frantically, Z for Zachariah could have been one of the year’s best. Still, it’s a film, and a story, worth actively seeking out.
Anne Burden (Margot Robbie), presumably the last survivor on Earth, makes home at her family farm in what has to be God’s pocket. It’s a barren imagining of How Green Was My Valley, an isolated land of verdant crops and rolling pastures as far as the eye can see. We barely glimpse the outskirts ravaged by radiation. Z for Zachariah places its focus on life and prosperity, and what better locale for that thematic element than this hidden oasis in a desert of death. However, no secret is safe, not even at the end of the world. Anne stumbles upon John (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a scientist who ditched his underground bunker quarters in search of humanity. To be found, you must first be lost.
The relationship between John and Anne is the center piece of the entire film. There’s an intimacy that naturally comes with the proceedings. Humans beings are the most advanced virus; population is a part of us. So when we think things are going one way, we realize they must soon go the opposite. Change enters in the form of Caleb (Chris Pine). He’s the serpent in this deeply religious parable. The antagonist who hisses and slithers about, never striking, but indirectly incites dishonesty and disrupts established roles and feelings. The equilibrium between these three leads and their interchangeable components are what make the film as successful as it is.
Directed by Craig Zobel, the newcomer shows absolute command for almost the film’s entirety. He imparts sexual tension, honest to goodness kinships, and an underlying sense of dread. Zobel demands our attention, through our eyes and our minds, and expects an intelligence out of his audience. For us to be able to connect the dots. Sometimes they’re too obvious, but he trusts us, and that’s a mature trait from a young director. What an ensemble as well. They’re all too pretty, but that lends well to the love triangle throughout. Robbie and Pine could not be better, giving tremendously nuanced performances, yet Ejiofor gets the most complex and challenging role. Early on, when he scans himself for radiation and rips off his safety suit, breathing in the richness of the good earth, you’d swear his tears of joy were real. Ejiofor is one of our finest modern actors.
Z for Zachariah is never afraid to be upfront with its religious overtones. Anne is a believer, the daughter of a preacher. John is a man of science. And Caleb falls somewhere in the middle. He bows his head at supper. He also agrees with John that the Church, erected by Anne’s father, should be torn down to build a water wheel as a means of generating power. The Church becomes the livelihood of their lives. Some parts of the film disappoint, like Anne playing herself as a sexual pawn, becoming an object of affection rather than a strong woman in a torn situation. However, Z for Zachariah gets it right more often than not. It’s definitely been done before (closely mirroring 1959’s The World, the Flesh and the Devil), but this time the journey is profoundly personal. A single shot that might last all of 3 seconds sold me on the movie completely. John reaches for a book on a shelf called “A is for Adam.” He reads the title, puts it back, and the scene is forgotten. What a pivotal moment, a complete contrast to the title. These people are the Z, the end of their green brick road. Z for Zachariah illustrates that sometimes a mess is needed. That disorder and upheaval spark renewal. If only more films were capable of such intellectual feats.
“This valley survived like you and I did because we have faith.”
Rating: 4 out of 5