After a nuclear holocaust leaves the human race devastated, Ann Burden (Margot Robbie), a small town farm girl, is the only survivor because her farm is based in a small valley that is protected from contamination. One day, she stumbles upon a sight she thought she’d never see – another human being. The man, John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is a research engineer on a desperate search for any remaining human contact, and though he’s been nearly driven mad by radiation exposure, he has medicine that is able to counteract the sickness.
Ann welcomes John into her home and his scientific knowledge proves to be a great help in developing a long-term form of sustainable energy for her farm. Though fragile, a bond nevertheless develops between the two of them; however, that bond is soon tested the moment a stranger named Caleb (Chris Pine) enters the valley.
Based on Robert C. O’Brien’s 1974 novel of the same name, Z for Zachariah (a reference to the A Is for Adam children’s Bible book) is not your typical post-apocalyptic film. There are no zombies, no tributes, no alien creatures, no mazes, no divergent’s; in fact, we’re left in the dark as to what exactly caused the catastrophe in the first place. Instead, this is a story that doesn’t concern itself with the cause, but the aftermath and more so those placed within the aftermath.
While most post-apocalyptic films, all six million that have been released in the past five years, tend to be action-oriented (not that that’s a bad thing… Exhibit A – Mad Max: Fury Road), director Craig Zobel (whose prior film Compliance I haven’t seen, but have been wanting to after hearing good things about it) handles familiar territory with a more methodical pace. It’s a patience tester kinda film, but it’s worth it for three nuanced performances from a talented cast and a slow-burn tension that never comes to a boil but holds a steady unease throughout.
Zobel takes what is clearly a bleak story and places it in a beautiful setting (the aforementioned Mad Max is another recent exception that decorated its wasteland with a gorgeous color palette). Although we do get glimpses of the destruction caused by the nuclear holocaust when Ann ventures into the city, most of the film takes place at her “paradise” farm, a metaphorical Garden of Eden which is captured in all its lush, exquisite glory by David Gordon Green’s longtime cinematographer Tim Orr.
Following The Wolf of Wall Street and Focus, Margot Robbie, the 8th Wonder of the World, continues to impress me as an actress. Obviously, the woman is absolutely beautiful and no amount of unglamorous greasy hair farm jackets or John Deere hats are gonna change that. But as I brought up in my review of Focus, Robbie’s more than a pretty face; this woman can act, and if her holding her own against Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith didn’t prove that to you, adding Chiwetel Ejiofor to that list should. Unlike her past two roles, her turn here as Ann couldn’t be any further from a sex-symbol, and she convincingly slips into the sheltered yet fully capable farm girl.
And at last, writer Nissar Modi gives us the first fully-fleshed out Christian character in what seems like forever ago. Unlike other films that either portray their Christians as loony, fanatical nut-jobs (Mandy Moore’s horrendous performance in Saved!) or one-note paragons (those crappy Pure Flix/Kirk Cameron flicks), Modi treats Ann Burden with respect. Sure, he doesn’t place her on a pedestal, but he never once belittles her for her faith, nor does he make her sound like a simpleton idiot during her “faith vs. pragmatism” conversations with Loomis.
So, oddly enough, this is probably the most Christian non-Christian film I’ve seen this year.
No surprise, Chiwetel Ejiofor is fantastic, effortlessly evoking much pain and longing even with something as simple as an eye-gaze and playing the non-believing Loomis with great grace and sophistication as he does in pretty much every other role he’s played (his reaction to catching Ann and Caleb share an intimate moment is nothing short of brilliant). Z for Zachariah’s greatest strength lies in the relationship that grows between him and Ann, a relationship that is sometimes strained by their highly symbolic conflict over his desire to tear down her father’s church in order to build a sustainable energy source. Yet like Ann, he too has lost much from the fallout and sees the other as filling their void of loneliness.
Just shy of the hour mark, the film takes a departure from the source material when it introduces Caleb who is not in O’Brien’s novel. A risky move that threatens to alienate fans of the novel, yes, especially when it’s a move taken to setup a love triangle. That said, they’re moves that shouldn’t automatically damn the movie if done right. Caleb isn’t as well-developed as John and Ann (with a run time of only 90-95 minutes, this is one of the rare occasions where I would’ve loved another 15-20 minutes tacked on) and could’ve come off as nothing more than a plot device, but Chris Pine gives a really good performance and brings a sense of restrained uneasiness that adds much more to the character than what might be shown on paper. Pine is all oily charm as he earns the trust of Ann, despite John’s immediate suspicions, keeping us guessing as to whether he’s sincere survivor or a serpent in the garden.
Though an overused backdrop, Z for Zachariah takes its post-apocalyptic setting and uses it to craft a compelling character study that’s bolstered by Tim Orr’s gorgeous cinematography and three strong performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie and Chris Pine. Given its deliberate pace and minimalist approach, this may not be for all fans of the genre, but those willing to give it a shot may find it to be a thoughtful, grounded look at the challenges humanity must work through following worldwide disaster.
I give Z for Zachariah a B+ (★★★).