One of the trickiest feats in narrative filmmaking is to craft a story that’s About Something, without making every character, frame, and piece of dialogue an explicit statement on that topic. Most thoughtful filmmakers are lucky if they can do it once. Craig Zobel has now done it twice. His hyper-controversial 2012 film Compliance was an emotionally brutal dramatization of unquestioning adherence to authority figures; his new film, Z for Zachariah, puts religion and science at opposite corners of the Garden of Eden, and then unleashes the snake. It’s also a film adaptation of a post-apocalyptic young adult novel, released at a moment when you probably can’t even fathom sitting through another one. Force yourself.
In a series of efficient establishing frames, Zobel sets the scene — an abandoned America, somewhere in the South, some time after a toxic disaster. Ann (Margot Robbie) scavenges in a hazmat suit; she lives alone on a farm that somehow made it through, taking care of herself and her dog, doing the best she can. One day, she discovers John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who escaped from a laboratory in a safety suit, which he ditches in joy before almost immediately killing himself in the toxic water of a nearby pond. Ann helps him, saves him really, grateful for human contact after so much time alone.
Ann discovers he was a scientist (“That’s cool,” she smiles). She’s deeply religious; we hear her prayers (“I know you must have a plan for us,” she whispers. “I’m not saying you don’t know better, or whatever”) and see the religious texts on her bookshelves, right next to the farming guides. After she nurses John back to health, he figures out a way to restore electrical power, using the energy generated by the waterfall at the pond. But they’ll need a lot of lumber to make it work, and he suggests the nearby church. She’s reluctant. “Well, I mean… my dad built that,” she objects. He tells her this is about rebuilding. She does not disagree.
You get the idea. What’s fascinating about these interactions is how, in the directing, the playing, and the writing (the screenplay is by Nissar Modi, freely adapting Robert C. O’Brien’s novel), they function as symbols, but without turning these scenes, or the film itself, into some kind of strident, schematic metaphor. They’re merely creating little fissures to offset the increasing and complicated attraction between the characters, which becomes even stickier when another survivor turns up.
His name is Caleb (Chris Pine); he’s handsome and charismatic, and he quickly figures out how to drive little wedges between them, pushing buttons, situating the pieces of what’s now a three-handed chess game. He feigns respect to the older man by calling him “Mr. Loomis,” but in front of Ann, he reframes their private conversations to put John on the defensive. She explains John away, telling Caleb that religion is “just not something we share”; Caleb makes sure she sees him joining her in a moment of silent blessing before they eat. It becomes clear, and quickly, that there’s going to be a third wheel here — and the entire situation becomes a psychosexual ticking time bomb.
What’s noteworthy about all of this is how carefully Zachariah dodges the temptation to turn Ann into some kind of prize. She’s clearly the protagonist, unquestionably and sometimes heartbreakingly good and pure. Meanwhile, we’re never quite certain exactly what John’s intentions and backstory are, even after the clearly shiftier Caleb appears. And when, out on a turkey shoot, Caleb asks John, “You fancy a wager on which one of us bags him?” and jokes that the winner gets Ann, it’s easy to imagine the kind of movie this could’ve been. Yet when one of them later insists he won’t “stand in her way” and thinks he’s being honorable (or perhaps saving himself from pain), it backfires; she recoils, hurt not only by his unemotional response, but by the presumption that it’s his decision to make.
Zobel’s direction, and Tim Orr’s knockout cinematography, keep the stakes clear. It’s a beautifully photographed vision of what could be a utopia, if only it were about a third less crowded. Heather McIntosh’s score, heavy with dread and noodling violins, amps up the considerable tension — more than you might expect for a movie that amounts, basically, to three people talking. But what they say, and don’t say, carries plenty of weight. Z for Zachariah is a film of ideas, but those ideas never overpower the people it’s about. One complements the other, which makes this one of the most satisfying movies of the summer.
Z for Zachariah is out Friday in limited release.