Directed by Craig Zobel.
2015. Rated PG-13, 98 minutes.
Ann (Robbie) doesn’t see people anymore. That’s not a surprise since she seems to be the only survivor around of the nuclear holocaust. Though the rest of the world seems to be totally radioactive, the little valley where she lives has been largely unaffected. She gets by on her farming skills. One day, someone else stumbles upon this area, scientist John Loomis (Ejiofor). He’s been wandering the land for a while after leaving the underground bunker where he was and is extremely happy to find a place where he can take off the cumbersome radiation suit he’s been walking around in. To celebrate, he jumps in some water he mistakenly thinks to be clean. This is when Ann finds him and lets him know of his faux pas. John gets sick, Ann takes him in, nurses him back to health, and the two strike up a relationship of sorts. For the most part, things are hunky dory. Their big point of contention is what John wants to do to generate power. He wants to build a water wheel in the same waterfall where Ann found him. The problem is to complete the project they would have to tear down the small church that Ann’s father built. Being understandably sentimental, along with being devoutly religious, she’s not having any of it. John happens to be an atheist, so there is much butting of the heads over the matter. Still, they realize they’re all they got and prepare to stick out the rest of their days together. Things change when a wanderer named Caleb (Pine) stumbles across this idyllic place and they decide to give him a place to stay for a few days before he moves on.
The first thing that must be noted about Z for Zachariah is that it’s an incredibly slow burn. This is a snail paced journey rather than a high octane adventure. The three people I mentioned in the opening paragraph make up the entire cast. The water wheel and discussions on religion provide the major conflict, initially. Later, we’re watching a love triangle, sans most of the hijinks and shenanigans of lots of other movies. In that regard, it’s a very mature look at what is happening between the three people involved. In lieu of the outward histrionics that come with the cinematic territory, we get introspection, and the dialogue that comes from that. Each move made by the people on the screen makes sense. Given the predicament in which they find themselves, they do things we can easily envision ourselves doing.
Carrying such a movie requires performances that feel genuine. All three actors are just that. As a couple of guys involved in a sword fight, so to speak, yet still looking to be cordial to one another, both Ejiofor and Pine are excellent. Pine is a perfect ruggedly handsome country guy who has just been roaming around trying to find a safe haven. Even when it’s clear he’s a duplicitous character, he’s a total charmer. If we know this guy in real life, he would come across as a phony. Pine is genuine in that phoniness, if that makes sense. Ejiofor might have a tougher task. His character has a big brain filled with all the science they’ll need to survive and, possibly, thrive. Still, he’s a relatable guy that never talks down to the others and never sounds as if he’s bragging when he’s imparting some of his knowledge on them. If you don’t think that’s tough think back to conversations with people who knew they had to explain something to you because they were sure, or just assumed, they know something you don’t. They tend to be condescending. We don’t get that from Ejiofor. He endows his character with a refreshing sense of humility. That’s not to say he’s a totally heroic character. As the film progresses, some unsavory things are revealed about him.
While the boys are both really good, our lady might outshine them both. Margot Robbie gets to be the focal point of the film and handles the responsibility exceptionally well. Her Ann is never anything less than one hundred percent believable. She is a real person, through and through. Her strengths, fears, insecurities, and motives all make perfect sense even though they occasionally contradict each other. Better than that, her naïveté comes across in an authentic manner. It never seems like she’s stupid, just not terribly experienced. How could she be? She’s clearly younger than both of the men suddenly in her life and went years without any human contact, at all. Robbie generates a very real innocence. I didn’t think she was capable of doing such a thing after seeing the rather worldly characters she played in such movies as The Wolf of Wall Street and Focus. This may not be the best movie she’s ever been in, but of what I’ve seen, it’s the best work she’s done.
I did just say Z for Zachariah is not the best movie Robbie has been in. However, it is still very good. Despite the sparseness of human life on the screen, it creates a world that somehow feels lived in. This is a credit to not only the actors, but to director Craig Zobel. He handled a similarly minimal, but a bit larger, cast to great effect in the underseen Compliance. Here, he crafts a focused film that uses its slow pacing very well. While not a lot is “happening,” there is a bunch “going on.” We have lots of things to sink our teeth into. Not least of these things is the film’s ending. It’s really ambiguous about what actually happens. We have two options on what that might be. Which way we lean depends on how honest we think a particular character is being in those last few moments before the closing credits. Once we decide what we think happened, we then have to decide if we agree with it. More important than that, we must also ask if we can see ourselves doing that very thing. It’s an interesting position in which to find yourself. I say this fully realizing that some of you hate such endings. I rather enjoy them. In any event, Z for Zachariah is definitely a romance. Granted, it’s an unconventional one, but I love that about it.