Z for Zachariah (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★
After a nuclear war, the majority of the planet became uninhabitable. One of the exceptions is the valley that Ann (Margot Robbie) resides in which was somehow protected by the nuclear fallout and quite possibly has its own weather system. Although Ann has lived with family, it has been a year since the rest of them attempted to find survivors outside of the valley. To her surprise, while doing her usual chores and rounds, Ann crosses paths with a man named John (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a research engineer wearing a suit designed to protect from radioactivity. Soon enough, despite their initial but important differences, they decide to live together.
“Z for Zachariah,” directed by Craig Zobel, is a contemplative piece that works as a chamber drama and barebones science fiction. Credit to the casting directors for choosing actors that are comfortable portraying many different emotions very often in one scene. This is because, aside from the main plot involving faith and science, the film is also about the images the characters paint in the viewer’s mind as they recollect traumatic memories.
Scenes that stand out involve characters simply sharing a meal or standing in a room and talking to one another. Particularly moving is when Ann opens up about her extremely isolated existence in the farm, what she had to go through before meeting John. We get a taste of her lifestyle during the first ten minutes as she trudges forward during her usual routine, a dog being her sole companion. Although the word “suicide” is never uttered, the subject is brought up with an elegance and a sadness. One cannot blame her for considering such an action and yet one ought to commend her strength for ultimately continuing to live, to keep fighting.
The pacing is slow and deliberate which is most appropriate in a story like this. Thus, the material is successful is building a lot of sexual tension between John and Ann. It is critical that we believe they are eventually drawn to each other, despite their differences especially when it comes to believing in God, because their feelings for one another—whatever it is exactly—is challenged later, upon the arrival of Caleb (Chris Pine), who claims that he is on his way south due to news that there is a colony of survivors there.
On some level, the picture works as a thriller in the final third as we begin to question how far a character, or characters, is willing to go in order to defend or upend the status quo. The ambiguous ending is wonderfully executed because clues are laid out for further dissection. It is up to us to decide which avenue to believe. In the wrong hands, it could have been simplistic, too fixed, altogether too clear, offering no sense of mystery or questioning. More importantly, the ending shoves us into the mindset of its characters.
Loosely based on the novel by Robert C. O’Brien, “Z for Zachariah” is a piece of work that is polished, certainly shot beautifully, but has enough roughness around the edges—its ability to take risks to be exact—to keep it fascinating. It is made for a more contemplative, empathetic audience.