Title: The Survivalist
Director: Stephen Fingleton
Major Players: Martin McCann, Mia Goth
Out Of Five: Four
“Post-apocalyptic”. Not again! Haven’t we had our fill of the likes of Divergent and The Maze Runner? Apparently not, because there’s more of the same on the way. But don’t confuse The Survivalist with them because, although it has a similar setting, that’s where any resemblance to the big budget, high profile YA movies begins and ends. Director Stephen Fingleton’s BIFA winning debut is, if anything, an antidote. And a reality check.
In a world where the oil has run out and the population has plummeted, it’s all about survival. Deep in the forest, a survivalist lives alone on a small farm, living off the land. He’s suspicious of an older and younger woman who arrive seeking food and shelter and, although a cautious trust develops, his existence soon comes under threat from a number of sources.
A survivalist, according to the dictionary, is somebody who is constantly prepared for disaster and the one at the centre of this story (Martin McCann) has already gone through a global catastrophe. For much of the first 20 minutes of the film, we’re given a microscopic look at his way of life: how he lives, grows his food, keeps warm and protects himself. There has to be a reason for those bear traps. There’s not a syllable of dialogue and any soundtrack comes from the forest itself and the near-constant rain. That silence, plus the stark, clinical graphics at the start of the film to explain the context, grip right from the start.
And the tension hardly ever lets up. The arrival of Milja (Mia Goth) and Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) simply adds to it, as he’s constantly on his guard with them, keeping his shotgun close. And, because we’ve just spent time with him, we’re wary of them too. Even when an uneasy truce is established and it looks like the two women can be trusted, suspicion remains and their actions prompt more questions. Yet, when he’s wounded by a raider, they save his life and help re-build the farm when it’s attacked by marauders.
So no beautiful teenage heroine or hero, no figurehead enemy, no spectacular action sequences. This is a world where survival is imperative, regardless of the cost, and food, as well as the seeds to grow it, is the currency. Other people are a threat and the surrounding forest, even though it looks idyllic with its brilliant greens and clear water, is as dangerous as the people that invade it. Fingleton leaves nothing to the imagination about the brutality of this life – or should that be existence – even down to the survivalist’s gruesome gunshot wound and the maggots that invade it.
The film is pared to the bone, just like this way of life. And it doesn’t just apply to the dialogue and single plot line, but also the photography. There’s some startling, single shots. When the survivalist wakes up after getting through the worst of an infection, all we see is a close up of one of his eyes, trying to take in what’s happening around him. Many scenes are shot at night, in near-natural, grainy light, reinforcing the sense of grinding, unrelenting hardship that pervades the film.
Taut, powerful and, yes, downright brutal at times, The Survivalist is an impressive first film, one with a powerful narrative and a cast who are convincingly resigned to a way of life clearly far removed from the one they once knew. It’s unglamorous to the point of ugly and uncomfortable at times, but never fails to absorb and intrigue and marks the arrival of a British talent with a striking vision.
The Survivalist is released in cinemas and on demand on Friday, 12 February and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 11 February.