From a whimper to a roar, this is how the world ends.
Post-apocalyptic movies are typically of a certain type, from the big vehicular action of Mad Max: Fury Road to the zombified horror of Resident Evil, but there are also those that take a quieter, more rarefied route to the end of the world. The Survivalist if that final breed as a film more focused on silence and isolation than the clash of terror and violence. That said, the terror and violence come soon enough.
It’s a few years into a tired and bleak future. Oil production has long since waned, and the planet’s population soon followed. A lone man (Martin McCann) lives in a shack at the center of concentric rings of sustenance. His garden sits just outside his walls, and the bounty of the forest surrounds him. He wakes, he survives, he rests, and the next day he does it all over again. Other stragglers exist too, and while paths are crossed sparingly they exclusively end in violence.
His routine is interrupted one day by the arrival of two women. Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) is older and grey-haired, and Milja (Mia Goth) is young, and after a brief bartering session he allows them food and shelter in exchange for sex with Milja. Hey, it beats jerking off into a potted plant again. It’s a temporary alliance, and an uneasy one at best after seven years of solitude, but it works.
Until it doesn’t.
There’s a beauty in writer/director Stephen Fingleton‘s debut feature despite the ugliness constantly butting up against it. The landscape is gorgeous, especially when devoid of humanity, and the survivalist’s isolated lifestyle contains a stark attraction. It’s the contrast though that stands this film apart from many of its post-apocalyptic peers. There’s nothing stylish or cool about these characters or their wardrobe. There’s nothing enviable in their daily conflicts. Instead they’re dirty, tired, and struggling each day to ensure they see the next. That’s ultimately the question at the heart of The Survivalist.
Is it truly surviving if it’s a life spent fearful, miserable, and alone?
Fingleton spots his slow build-up of intensity with small moments of violence, and it’s fairly clear where things are heading. It’s less an issue of predictability though — genre fans know how this will end — and instead more a confirmation of the inevitable. Still, an awareness of what’s to come doesn’t lessen the dirt and blood-laced brutality of seeing people claw and scrape their way towards a desperate survival.
Others pass through, but the film belongs to the lead trio as they remain the focus throughout. McCann gives a performance that feels at one with the place and circumstance in his lack of vanity or effort towards likability. He’s capable and fierce, and you absolutely believe he’s a man disconnected from the tenderness and love he only barely recalls. Goth (Nymphomaniac, Vol. II) is a far more passive presence using other skills and options in her quest for survival, but her sleepy-eyed submissiveness can be just as dangerous.
Fouere is the film’s standout though in a role that could easily have become a thankless endeavor. Kathryn is every bit the crafty survivalist that he is, one capable of violence just as easily as she is of deception and manipulation, but there’s still a feminine nature to her. The perceived contrast between her and Milja is made clear in the man’s “attraction” to youth, but Kathryn’s femininity and womanhood are never in doubt. It doesn’t make her tougher or weaker, but it reveals a person hanging on to what they need to to survive in a world that not only sees little value in it but that doesn’t seem to care for it at all.
The Survivalist is a drama with brief sequences of violence, and while there’s plot and structure here it’s in many ways a character study. It’s not a fun film, but it is a tensely thrilling one.