The Survivalist is austere. Scrubbed clean of sentimentality. That is true of the titular character, played by Martin McCann, and of the film itself, directed by first-time feature director Stephen Fingleton with a lean and hungry edge. Set in a deromanticized post-apocalypse, The Survivalist is a paranoid chamber piece about trust, betrayal, and yes, survival in an unforgiving world where death lies certain in wait around every corner, be it murdering ravagers, the perils of nature, or the person you share a home with.
The Survivalist sets the scene with an elegant, understated graphic that tells us everything we need to know about how the world ended with a single sweeping motion: as the human population boomed, so did the production of oil — until they both came crashing down and society along with them. That’s all we get, and that’s all we need. The Survivalist has nothing to offer in the way of high-concept, world-building visions of the apocalypse and the heroes who ride them out. This film is more interested in the scraps of society; the humans who have found a way to survive years after the fall and what parts of their humanity they had to sacrifice to stay in the game.
The film introduces us to the post-apocalypse through the unpleasantries of the Survivalist’s day-to-day life. A dead body dragging through the dirt, the cold pale flesh jolting and flopping at the kick of the Survivalist’s boot. Anyone who comes on his property with demands pays in their life and he uses their corpses to fertilize his one-man farm. In between setting traps and dispatching intruders, he tends to his crops, maintains his home, and stares at the image of a blonde woman long gone. It’s dull and dreary, a stark life of flesh, dirt, bugs and blood. But it is life and he’s the one living it. Every other person he encounters is a walking threat to take that from him.
Naturally, he’s not very welcoming when a stern older woman Kathryn (Olwen Fouéré), instantly recognizable as a fellow world-weary survivor, and her daughter Milja (Mia Goth) show up at his doorstep asking for food. First they offer jewelry, then seeds for his harvest, and finally, sex with the nubile young Milja in exchange for dinner and a night’s stay. It’s that final offer he can’t refuse after years of living alone. But he never lets his guard down, keeping a shotgun trained on his visitors as he invites them into his home, serves them dinner, right up until he and Milja get down to it. It’s an uncomfortable prospect, prostitution in exchange for survival, but it has a distinct ring of truth and history tells us full well what kind of boorish impulses to expect in times of crisis.
Fortunately, Fingleton never plays up the situation for exploitative thrills and titillation, but for a complex tapestry of character drama, built from ever-shifting intimacies and allegiances that only come into focus when someone makes a move. Fingleton photographs bodies as stark flesh, and he treats them all the same, regardless of age or gender, whether in a moment of lust or murder. A body is a body, and they are all susceptible.
The trio soon finds themselves engaged in an uneasy routine. The women help the Survivalist tend to his crops, they dine together, he takes Milja to bed. But the queasy agreement cannot hold. Whether from the machinations and deceptions brewing amongst themselves, the outside threats who wander into their camp, or the ever-looming possibility of starvation, that mission — to survive — is always in peril. What follows is a series of breathless dramatic sequences, hinged entirely on these characters and their need to either trust or repel each other and ultimately the question of what they’re surviving for.
Every moment is drenched in life-or-death stakes. Fingleton nixes a traditional score in favor of a lingering silence that makes every breath and turn of the head echo with implication. All three actors are up to the nuanced task. They talk so rarely the dialogue could probably fit on a single page, and Fingtleton builds a world without expressive flourishes of personality. Everyone is stripped to down to fight or flight. Or at the calmest moments, negotiation. Trust and intimacy are an invitation to death and each one of them knows it, which means they are always measuring each other up, evaluating the pros and cons in the moment of their situation. It’s not about how you feel, it’s about whether this person can help you live, and that mercenary outlook lays the groundwork for outstanding moments of tension. Fingleton frames these moments elegantly, be through a perspective-inverting tracking shot or clever cross-cutting that tells you exactly what you don’t want to know.
The Survivalist finds a home in the modern trend of subdued, grim post-apocalyptic character drama, sharing a kinship with The Road and Z for Zachariah. The characters are challenging and distant, often unlikable, and the film’s measured pacing and downbeat view of humanity may not be for all audiences. However, Fingleton makes a meal out of complex character drama, raking his audience over the coals with piano-wire tension that leaves you jittery long after the credits role.