Despite a curious concept and a strong cast, the post-apocalyptic drama Z For Zachariah cannot overcome several problematic decisions by its filmmakers. Director Craig Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi have adapted Robert C. O’Brien’s posthumous 1974 novel, a story about a teenage girl surviving alone on an English farm spared nuclear annihilation because of its location in a valley. Then a stranger in a radiation suit appears. Stricken with radiation poisoning, she takes the man — a scientist — in and cares for him. The story becomes a weird post-nuclear metaphor for the Garden of Eden until the sexual tension turns into something decidedly more sinister.
The fear of nuclear war isn’t what it used to be when the novel was released, so Zobel and Modi have thrown in a third character, a second man, to explore something decidedly more primal. Margot Robbie plays the young woman, Ann Burden, though she is no longer a naive, skittish teen but a stronger-willed young woman who hangs much of her survival on Christian faith. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the interloper John Loomis, an engineer who has grown tired of hiding in a bomb shelter. About halfway through the film, after the two gain a sort of trust and friendly affection for one another, real tension arises when Caleb (Chris Pine) appears. He’s a blue-collar type whose charm, age and race seems the better fit for Ann. The threat goes three ways, in a simmering, subtle conflict of manners.
Unfortunately, it’s not enough to hold the concept together, as Zobel struggles to maintain the subtle tone necessary to explore the thin thread of social decorum in a post-society world. It’s either too subtle or too sloppy. The performers exude a sense of ambivalence to varying degrees. Ejiofer is the standout, transmitting the conflict within him with the most clarity. Pine does a fine job, too. He’s at times a grim and ominous presence. Robbie isn’t bad, but her character feels inconsistently drawn, either too meek or too independent, but most of the blame for that goes to the script and the dated story. It’s as if the filmmakers have hesitated to explore the woman’s psyche.
It could be the film is trying to be sly about the tension or maybe the script isn’t up to par to clearly present the subtle antagonism among this “society” based on a trio of people. Then there are the scenes that glaringly point to deficiencies in the writing. In one scene John spies on Ann through the site of a rifle, as she works a field of crops. It’s an unnerving moment that is quickly diffused soon after Ann returns, and he tells her it felt “weird” to point the firearm at her, and she explains, “It’s got a great scope.” It’s one of too many clunky occasions that undermine the mood the film strains to maintain. As overwrought as it sometimes feels, Heather McIntosh’s score does a more efficient job of controlling the film’s atmosphere.
Then there are a few silly details that even more harshly breaks the film’s suspension of disbelief. Early in the movie, Ann plays a 78 record on an old phonograph to sit down to eat a dinner she fancies up with candles. It’s presented as part of a montage to show her loneliness and boredom. But those records have a maximum run time of three and a half minutes, hardly the time needed to complete a leisurely dinner. But the worst of these sort of missteps is the presence of a dog that seems to be Ann’s only companion, until John arrives. Somewhere off camera, he just drops out of the narrative. Maybe I blinked and missed something, but the dog plays a big role in the book, and it seems the filmmakers just had enough of the dog and cut him out without a single reference. That’s just sloppy.
Speaking of cutting out, the film’s fatal mistake arrives at the end and how it handles the inevitable confrontation between the two men. I don’t usually point out gripes with a film’s ending, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with how Zobel chose to deal with resolving this conflict. It sanitizes the characters by keeping their ugliest acts off-screen. This is how you weaken the impact of a concept. Zobel fails to have it both ways: presenting characters with dark, primal sides while trying to make them sympathetic, which many filmmakers have done successfully (take Noah Baumbach, for instance). This is especially disappointing because Zobel is the director who went all out when he adapted a disturbing real-life story that explores the profundity of the dark limits of human behavior while implicating the audience in 2012’s Compliance, (Compliance reveals horrific dimensions of social behavior – a film review). He could have so easily achieved the same level of unease with this movie had he only not backed away from the abyss. It’s a shame to see Zobel blink.
Z For Zachariah runs 98 Minutes and is rated PG-13 (cursing, some light nudity and sexuality and the threat of violence). It opens exclusively in our Miami area at Sunset Place (put is also available on VOD) today, Aug. 28. Roadside Attractions provided all images in this post and an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review.