Z for Zachariah

If you've seen Will Forte's television series The Last Man on Earth, it may take you a while to get over the similarities between that show and Craig Zobel's Z for Zachariah. Both efforts begin with a person who believes that they may be the last survivor of a post-apocalyptic world. Then, a person of the opposite sex arrives, bringing with them the promise of companionship and the hope that the world might be repopulated. Finally, yet another person arrives, threatening to derail the relationship the first two survivors have formed. The Forte series plays this premise for laughs (it's fundamentally a comedy of sexual frustration), but Z for Zachariah uses a near-identical scenario to create a tense, thought-provoking drama. It's a welcome reminder that there are often multiple compelling ways to tell a story.

The “lone survivor” in the film is Anne Burden (Margot Robbie, The Wolf of Wall Street), a southern farm girl who lives in a small valley that somehow hasn't been contaminated by the radiation that has destroyed the rest of the world. Her family members are gone, and her only companion is a friendly dog. She reads, she plays the organ in the local church (where her father was pastor) and she tills the garden. It's a quiet, simple, lonely existence. Then, she comes across a man wearing a radiation suit.

The man is John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years a Slave), a research engineer who was hidden away in a military bunker when the nuclear holocaust occurred. Since that time, he has devoted his life to searching for radiation-free land, but he never actually expected to find it. He's overjoyed to discover the existence of Anne's farm, and wonders what sort of natural buffer has prevented the area from being destroyed. Anne suggests that divine intervention is responsible – a notion John politely declines to comment on. When John suggests that they might be able to generate electricity by tearing down the church and building a water wheel, Anne protests out of fear that they might be tearing down the very thing that has protected the land.

One suspects that under normal circumstances, John and Anne wouldn't gravitate towards each other. His faith in science is an uncomfortable fit with her faith in God, and besides, he's a good deal older than her. Still, these aren't normal circumstances, and Anne is a very attractive woman. John begins to lust after her almost immediately, but hesitates to reveal his feelings for her. Anne desires John, too, but seems a little oblivious to the casual suggestions he makes about their possible future together.

Ejiofor and Robbie play their scenes together remarkably well, and there are a lot of interesting moments that come from the disconnect between his repressed desire and her naivete. Ejiofor plays John as a fundamentally kind, good-hearted man, but there are brief flickers of something a little more troubling. In one scene, John wanders into an abandoned gas station and gets drunk, and his drunkenness causes him to reveal a troubling, hostile side of his personality. He sheepishly apologizes in the morning and Anne accepts, but the moment lingers.

Eventually, another survivor (Chris Pine, Star Trek) wanders across Anne's property. His name is Caleb, and he survived the blast by hiding in a coal mine. He's a little under the weather due to his radiation exposure, and John hesitantly invites him to camp out on the property for a couple of days. The generous Anne pushes such suggestions aside, and invites Caleb to take a room in the house until he's good and ready to leave. This makes John angry, but he struggles to find a way to rationalize his anger. He claims he's merely treating a stranger with caution, but the truth of the matter is that he fears this charming, handsome white man will steal Anne away from him.

Z for Zachariah is largely a quiet, low-key movie, but it contains an enormous amount of tension because you're convinced that something terrible might happen at any moment. On the surface, the presence of three people makes life infinitely better: new ideas are contributed, new talents are utilized and things get done. Anne, John and Caleb aren't just surviving, but living – so why is it that all three of them are more restless than ever before? This three-person universe serves as a microcosm of humanity, simultaneously reminding us of the things we can achieve when we work together and of the countless ways we find to tear each other apart. All of the talk is about forward momentum and progress, but racial tension, sexual tension, spiritual tension, jealousy, lust, anger and paranoia continue to simmer in the background.

Zobel's previous feature was the unsettling Compliance, which detailed the true story of a man who took advantage of a young restaurant employee by pretending to be a police officer. That movie dug into a number of complex topics, but at its center was an exploration of humanity's troubling ability to ignore the alarm bells our conscience rings in certain situations. Z for Zachariah digs into some similar territory, as characters walk right up to the edge of a terrible decision and then are forced to ask themselves some tough questions. Midway through the movie, the three survivors share stories of the awful things they've seen and/or done in this horrifying new world. When the traditional rules of society are stripped away and you're only accountable to yourself, how far will you go to get what you want?

Movies with small casts often feel like filmed stage plays, but not this one. Zobel takes full advantage of the expansive outdoor locations at his disposal, and uses expertly-framed long shots of the characters to remind us how of empty this world is. Heather McIntosh's score is beautiful, but also uncertain – her minor key melodies (including a somber hymn that Anne likes to play) leave room for the possibility of warmth and tragedy.

Robbie, Ejiofor and Pine are all big-league movie stars, but they are also exceptional actors, and this film is an excellent showcase for their talents. Ejiofor's performance is the most consistently compelling, probably because he's the one we feel least certain about (Pine brings a slyness to the table that makes him feel untrustworthy from the start, and Robbie's gives Anne a form of innocence that feels entirely sincere). You see increasing amounts of fear in his eyes, and after a while you begin to realize that what he's afraid of is his own burning hatred. Watch this movie, but really watch it – if you let it run in the background while you check your phone, you might mistake it for an attractive-looking but uneventful effort. Look closer, and you'll discover a great deal of compelling human drama bubbling beneath the surface.

Z for Zachariah

Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 98 minutes
Release Year: 2015