Z for Zachariah uses its post-apocalyptic backdrop to craft a compelling and moody character study.
Z for Zachariah picks up sometime in the aftermath of a global disaster that left the majority of the planet irradiated and inhospitable for humankind. Young southerner Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) has managed to survive the nuclear fallout by staying within the confines of her family’s farmstead, which is located in a region that has (somehow) avoided being contaminated. Ann spends her time with no one but her dog for company, until one day when John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) – a research engineer who has long searched for a radiation-free area – stumbles upon Ann’s “paradise”.
After being nursed back to health by Ann, John uses his scientific knowledge to assist her with not just farming, but also developing a long-term sustainable energy source. The pair awkwardly, but steadily, grow closer and form a more intimate relationship – until a charismatic, but mysterious man named Caleb (Chris Pine) arrives on the scene, threatening to shatter what little stability Ann and John have found in the process.
Z for Zachariah is loosely based on the 1974 novel of the same name by Robert C. O’Brien, though the adapted script by Nissan Modi (Breaking at the Edge) leaves O’Brien’s source material behind during its second half with the introduction of Caleb – a character not found in the original book. The resulting love triangle plot thread is not as effective as the other narrative through-lines in the film; still, under the guiding hand of director Craig Zobel, Z for Zachariah works as a thoughtful reflection on the human need to make deep emotional connections and how difficult that can be to achieve (even when it’s a necessary means for survival).
Modi and Zobel’s Z for Zachariah resembles such recent works as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road and even the Will Forte comedy series The Last Man on Earth, in that it doesn’t focus on the specifics of a world-ending event; rather, the film explores what happens when the survivors attempt to pick up the pieces. Fortunately, Modi’s screenplay updates the religious faith vs. scientific pragmatism theme of O’Brien’s source novel, in order to provide a refreshingly modern and yet at the same time objective look at the strengths and weaknesses of different belief systems – though a parable about the re-building of a devastated world. Cinephiles might also note the similarities between Z for Zachariah and the Harry Belafonte-led film The World, the Flesh and the Devil, though the former mostly veers clear of the latter’s social commentary on race (save for one scene) – for better or worse.
From a directorial perspective, Zobel succeeds at maintaining a slow-burn pace over the duration of Z for Zachariah‘s three acts. The cinematography by Tim Orr (Pineapple Express, Joe) and the editing by Jane Rizzo (who also collaborated with Zobel on Compliance) are key to this, as every shot and edit in the film is meticulously designed to provide just the right minimum amount of information; this gives Z for Zachariah a lean narrative structure and keeps the character-driven story moving along smoothly. This clinical filmmaking approach thus allows Zobel to always keep the focus on his small cast’s performances, save for the occasional mood-setting shots of their surroundings. The decision to shoot much of Z for Zachariah in undeveloped regions of New Zealand also pays off well, in this respect – as to better capture the sense of isolation and loneliness felt by characters in the film.
Z for Zachariah also benefits from having moments of tension featured throughout its running time, to always remind viewers of the uneasy state that is now a part of everyday life for the movie’s characters (after having endured so much pain during the enigmatic apocalyptic event). However, the film starts to overplay its hand in this respect during its second half, once Caleb has entered the equation. This love triangle between Ann, John, and Caleb lacks the emotional complexity of the relationship between Ann and John, in part because the movie’s clinical approach clashes with its efforts to create romantic tension. The other problem is how the character of Caleb is written; despite fine work by Pine (more on that later), Caleb functions as a plot device and never takes on the three-dimensional depth that Ann and John have.
The relationship between Ann and John, as well as the characters themselves, is rich and interesting enough to sustain Z for Zachariah to its conclusion (an ending that some will no doubt find infuriatingly open to interpretation) – even when the film starts to become ham-fisted with its dramatic elements. Margot Robbie convincingly vanishes into the role of Ann, aptly handling the character’s various traits – her inexperience, her hopefulness, and her religious devotion – without ever over-playing any particular quality. Similarly, Chiwetel Ejiofor precisely communicates John’s logic-driven outlook by way of action, while at the same time expressing so much of the character’s internal pain and emotional baggage with just his eyes alone. If there was ever any doubt that both Ejiofor and Robbie are talented actors (who also tend to make worthwhile films), then Z for Zachariah puts that doubt to rest.
Caleb’s shortcoming as a written character aside, Chris Pine brings just the right touch of oily charm to the role. As a result, Pine is able to keep both Ann and John (along with those who are watching Z for Zachariah) constantly guessing, as to whether he’s a figurative serpent – who’s arrived in Ann’s “Eden” in order to stir up trouble – or if he is just a well-meaning (and spiritual) match for Ann, right down to his identical brown hair and shiny blue eyes. It’s a difficult balancing act that could have easily toppled over into villain territory, but Pine avoids hitting a false note throughout his scenes in the film… even though, again, he’s the least well-developed of the film’s sole three characters.
Z for Zachariah uses its post-apocalyptic backdrop to craft a compelling and moody character study. The film’s strengths outweigh its shortcomings, but at the same time its minimalist design, slow pacing, and overall “indie flavor” might not be to everyone’s tastes. Nevertheless, those who decide to give this drama a look at their local arthouse theater may find it to be a moving examination of the real challenges that humanity could face after “the end of the world”.
Z for Zachariah is now playing in select U.S. theaters. It is 95 minutes long and is Rated PG-13 for a scene of sexuality, partial nudity, and brief strong language.
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