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Review: The Survivalist – “A compelling look at what makes us human”

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Whether zombies are involved or not, post apocalyptic survival tales have been a trend for a while now, especially in the indie scene, as they perfectly fulfill the minimalism required by most debut features. Northern Ireland native Stephen Fingleton makes the most of this formula with The Survivalist, his first feature length project after a few shorts earned him the industry’s attention, Hollywood included. After all, the film’s title is a manifesto of the genre itself whilst also hinting at the thematic layers of a story that revolves around a PTSD-affected solitary man.

A fantastic Martin McCann (’71, X+Y) plays the unnamed protagonist and his magnetic screen presence is pivotal in order to hold the audience’s attention for a good portion of the film’s first act whilst he’s alone and silent. Yet, even when finally interacting with other souls, his dialogue is rather sparse and his most affecting reactions come from way more than just words. And it couldn’t have been otherwise for a film that relies heavily on intriguing us with simple and nuanced storytelling.

Fingleton seems to make a declaration of his minimalistic yet effective style even before the first shot fades up on screen. In order to set the context and the mood of the piece he shows us two differently colored lines expanding on a black background. One graphic documents the rapid growth and decline of oil supply and consumption on our planet and the other one records human overpopulation. With such a simple but efficient tool the filmmaker establishes the world of the film without needing any clichéd exposition and we can only thank him for that.

The opening image is also rather on point as the protagonist drags a dead body under the poring rain and then proceeds to bury it. In the blink of an eye we get a sense of what this man’s life is like. He lives in a secluded hut in the heart of the woods where he’s built a small but functioning mini-farm of sorts and lives off his produce, spending his days working the little piece of land and fending off intruders, not thinking twice whether or not to kill them. But we also get glimpses of his recent past and his brother’s death in a recurring flashback-dream where they are chased in the woods in the dark of night. The vivid memory and whatever else he’s done in order to survive so far in this starved new world haunt the man from frame one.

When silver haired Kathryn (Olwen Fouéré) and her catatonic daughter Milja (Mia Goth) show up at his door, the man’s status quo is broken forever. They ask for a meal and seek asylum for the night offering seeds as a bargaining chip but the only thing that eventually convinces the man to give in is sexual intercourse with the young woman. Oh yes, this is a world where (alleged) mothers pimp out their daughters for food and shelter. What matters is how Fingleton makes it all sound and look authentic with the right dose of graphic sex and violence which is the only way to portray the reality of this new world where we’re all stripped down to our basic instincts and needs.

The cast is fully on board as they literally and figuratively bare themselves for the sake of the story, delivering the filmmaker’s realistic vision of what that world would be like. And of course, thematically, the film explores how despite our main preoccupation would be survival, we still are social animals and crave the company of others and not just on a sexual level. The most interesting aspect of the story lies in the intricate relationship triangle that develops among these three characters, as obviously the women wind up staying more than one night, especially when potential danger from new intruders soon becomes inevitable.

The Survivalist doesn’t contribute anything new or original to the post-apocalyptic genre but it’s still a compelling look at what makes us human when the world has crumbled all around us. It’s a claustrophobic dark tale filmed as a heightened sensorial experience, delivered rather convincingly by a great cast, especially Martin McCann in the title role. A feature debut thin on story but solid on cinematic quality of the storytelling from a promising filmmaker that despite all the bleakness portrayed, in the end, focuses on a message of hope that’s much needed nowadays.

3-out-of-5

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