Perhaps we do get an overabundance of post-apocalyptic movies, but Stephen Fingleton’s feature debut, The Survivalist, makes me long for the cliche because he strips his film of everything that makes the concept enjoyable and entertaining. Perhaps the situation in The Survivalist is more grounded and realistic than most, but it’s also dull, off-putting and downright miserable.
The movie centers on an unnamed character played by Martin McCann. He lives alone in a tiny cabin in the woods, grows his own crops, and hugs a rifle day and night. Minus the fact that he’s clearly haunted by an incident involving his brother, things are okay (or okay as they can be given the circumstances) until Kathryn (Olwen Fouèrè) and her daughter Milja (Mia Goth) stumble upon his hideaway. Taking them in could destroy the order, secrecy and safety he’s established, but he decides to make some changes in order to build a life with them.
Post-apocalyptic settings are inherently interesting. You can’t help but to wonder, why is the world this way? Can it be fixed? What tactics can give a person the edge? The Survivalist does answer the first question using an opening graphic that reveals that after the downfall of oil production, the population plummeted, but that’s about it. The movie isn’t about the state of the world. It’s about these three people and they’re just not that likable or interesting.
McCann comes the closest to striking a chord. Fingleton doesn’t present the character’s routine in a way that makes it very memorable, but he does firmly establish the importance of his farm and cabin, so when Kathryn and Milja arrive, it’s quite natural to side with McCann and understand why he must resort to such brutish tactics in order to preserve what he’s built – that is until he essentially rapes Milja and they’re all okay with it. Sure, there’s a reason for her willing submission and McCann does manage to convey that his character truly cares for her, but she’s still sleeping with him in exchange for food and shelter, and it’s so off-putting that it’s distracting. And it certainly doesn’t help that Kathryn and Milja aren’t particularly pleasant people to be around either. At least McCann’s character’s efforts are somewhat noble. Kathryn and Milja are totally self-serving and, on top of that, they don’t have much personality.
I don’t think there’s a single smile throughout this entire movie. Sure, the world’s gone to shit and you can go hungry or be killed at any second, but that shouldn’t completely strip people of their personalities – or at least not in a movie. No matter what Fingleton thinks would really go down if the population had to adapt to a post-apocalyptic lifestyle, The Survivalist is still a movie and a movie needs to be entertaining in some respect, and this one’s not whatsoever. It’s slow, bleak and doesn’t leave you with anything to think about besides finding the quickest way to snap out of it and get on with your life.
There’s also nothing unique about the way the film is shot. After awhile, the visuals just start to blur together. Trees and shrubbery here, the cabin there and back again. Fingleton does capture an abundance of curious smaller details while covering the main character’s daily chores, but he seems to have forgotten the importance of an establishing shot. Perhaps the movie is better off not revealing where McCann’s cabin is located in relation to the rest of civilization, but we needed a wide shot of the cabin itself early on. For a good deal of the film, the rich details of the cabin interior are tough to appreciate because you have absolutely no sense of the extent of the structure.
The Survivalist isn’t a poorly made film by any means and there’s also no doubt that many will appreciate Fingleton’s darker, more realistic approach to post-apocalyptic society, but I’m certainly not one of them. I just can’t justify sitting through such misery for two hours.