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Post-apocalyptic genre pieces really have become a dime a dozen these days. Whether it be via the ever reliable outbreak of the undead (The Walking Dead, Warm Bodies, World War Z), global pandemic (28 days Later, The Last of Us) or widespread nuclear fallout (The Book of Eli), it seems virtually all of our popular art forms are obsessed with showing us worlds that have already offed themselves. With tales of unadulterated violence across lawless wastelands, these stories are our contemporary westerns. This is also not the usual material that Irish cinema concerns itself with. Generally speaking, we prefer dreary, restrained period pieces about farmland or sobering reminders of our institutional and/or clerical abuse. Writer/director and Derry native Stephen Fingleton must not identity with that twee, mournful view of this island as he instead chooses to bring Irish desolation into the 21st century with his dystopian downer The Survivalist.
Set somewhere in the north of Ireland, we follow a nameless yet resourceful loner (Martin McCann) who, after a cataclysmic event which left his world in ruins and with finite amounts of resources, struggles to survive in his shack/would be farm in the woods. With the arrival of a duplicitous older woman Kathryn and her sweet looking, younger companion Milja (Mia Goth), things become complicated as our distrusting hero reluctantly agrees to take them in. It has to be stressed that The Survivalist is entire galaxies away from the gas guzzling, blood spewing and ferociously fast road trip that is Mad Max – another end of world free for all. Fingleton is much more interested in the intimate and the small scale. As its title suggests, this is something altogether more stripped back and bare bones.
Whereas most other entries in this overloaded sub-genre like to focus on the barbarous death match that can ensue following the collapse of society, here is something that celebrates the more minute details of life without law and order. For better, and sometimes for the worst, The Survivalist successfully captures the monotony that comes with post-apocalyptic alienation (think about it, if there were fewer people around, surely a lot fewer things would actually happen). Fingleton’s minimalist approach can be summed up in the arresting intro. Initially, all we see is a black screen with a vibrant red line that’s eventually revealed to be the growth rate of the human population on a graph. As the unsettling score plays, we follow the line as it accelerates up ward at an increasing rate as a blue line (rate of oil production) starts to do the same until the two drastically fall, one after the other. It’s a chilling and visually inventive way to get across back story, especially considering so many other films prefer opening with reams of text or some self-important narration.
Listen to writer/director Stephen Fingleton and star Martin McCann talk about making The Survivalist among other things on The HeadStuff Podcast.
This unconventionally austere feeling continues into the first scene. When we first meet our hardened isolate, he’s dragging lifeless bodies in unforgivingly wet conditions with rain and mud almost seeping through the camera lens. Fingleton teases us with a bloody altercation that we never get to see because he’d rather show the sheer strain involved in the arduous task of deposing the corpses. After that, virtually all of the action takes place in and around the confines of our hero’s ‘farm’, if you want to call it that. In the mute, opening 10 minutes we are given a glimpse into the man’s solitary existence and his methods of survival. The scale facing our survivor in the act of just getting by feels practically insurmountable as he’s forced to use anything at his disposable – including his own ejaculate – to help cultivate his measly set of crops (The Martian’s excrement fuelled potatoes have nothing on this guy).
Milja’s and Katherine’s inclusions result in a sort of taut, “who do you trust” triangle. To say what unfolds is light on dialogue is a bit of understatement and the film’s meditative strategy can result in some somnambular stretches. For instance, once you’ve seen one scene of them eating pissy, mushroom soup at the table, you’ve seen them all. Nonetheless this embracing of the seemingly trivial is done so as to create a believable reality for our characters to preside in. And thankfully, it also means we aren’t overloaded with clunky exposition. It’s little touches – like Milja’s passive unzipping of her coat to mark her begrudging acceptance that her own body is her best form of currency – which Fingleton uses to express this world’s moral debasement.
With its understated tone, eerie forest setting and lack of score, a terrific sense of place persists throughout. The howling winds, dogged downpours and quietly rustling leaves all become something close to tangible. It’s as if nature itself is questioning man’s self-afforded pre-eminence, and reclaiming the landscape back for itself. Fingleton doesn’t shy away from acknowledging mankind’s brutalism, both before and after societal disintegration. At one point, Milja is seen flicking through some images of 20th century atrocities: Were we ever any better? And of course it’s not totally void of violent incident. In an attempted kidnapping sequence, there’s a bravura, relentlessly slow overhead pan in a seemingly tranquil Meadow that reveals all and ratchets up the tension tenfold.
The three central performances are suitably restrained with McCann a formidable physical presence and established actress of the Irish stage Olwen Fouere going against type to play the aged Kathryn as a kind of Lady Macbeth realist. It’s a bit unfortunate that the story feels the need to retreat the same potential act of betrayal in the space of 20 minutes and that it ends on a note of contrived optimism (think of the most clichéd way these movies end, and you’ve probably guessed how this one does). But The Survivalist’s strengths lie in its patient world-building and gritty verisimilitude. Like the cabin our trio inhabit, the film is claustrophobic, unassuming but not without its creaks. For the most part though, Fingleton makes his mark on a tired genre with a refreshingly subdued slice of post-apocalyptic life.
The Survivalist in is cinemas now. Check out the trailer below.
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