This is one of the year’s best movies.
The Garden of Eden isn't big enough for three people, it seems. Chiwetel Ejiofor, Margot Robbie and Chris Pine's characters find that out the hard way in "Z for Zachariah," an adaptation of a posthumously-published novel by Robert C. O'Brien ("Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh"). It's set in the aftermath of unspecified decline-and-fall that definitely included nuclear weapons; pockets of radiation are everywhere, even in remote rural areas, and the film includes sequences where radiation-proof suits are used and people talk about underground bases and protocols. It's hard enough just to survive out here, or so we're told; forget about rebuilding civilization.
And yet that's exactly what the film's three characters (the only ones onscreen) try to do. The story begins with Ann (Robbie), a farm woman who inherited the place from her beloved church-building saint of a father, finding the title character (Eijofor) and nursing him back to health. The first third or so of the film is a two-character play that shows Zachariah gaining strength and getting to know Ann, who's sweet but skittish and socially awkward (they both are—who wouldn't be under the circumstances?), and forming something like a partnership, with the potential to become something else. Pine's character, Caleb, eventually enters the picture; I don't think this is a spoiler considering that Pine's name and face are on the poster. The addition of a third character, and one who's as ridiculously good-looking as the other two, injects a welcome note of tension into what was otherwise feeling like an exceptionally acted and photographed (in widescreen, by the masterful Tim Orr) psychodrama about really, really nice people.
There are racial and religious overtones to the way that Ann, Caleb and Zachariah try to work together, and relate to each other, and especially in the way that Ejiofor plays Zachariah, an engineer, as a man who worked hard, became a success in his chosen field, found a mate that he loved dearly, then lost everything in the cataclysm, and now finds himself having to compete with a younger, more cooly charismatic white man for the only available female. To make matters worse, Ann and Caleb seem to have an immediate chemistry that's more labored than the more paternal, or at least big-brotherly, energy that she has with Zachariah. Race is never explicitly mentioned in the film, except rather pointedly in one scene, but it colors, pardon the word, every suffering closeup of Zachariah as he watches Ann and Caleb flirt and trade not-so-furtive glances.
As for religion, Ann's dad built the local church, and Zachariah strongly advises tearing it down for raw material to create a wheel that will generate electricity from a local waterfall. As adapted by Nissan Modi and directed by Craig Zobel ("The Great World of Sound," "Compliance"), the movie is rather coy in how it frames Zachariah's (and later, Caleb's) enthusiasm for tearing down the church. It represents a destruction of the old order to create something new, but also (conversely) a rejection of the very patriarchal authority that both Zachariah and Caleb often represent to Ann, and that Ann's father represented to her back in the day.
This is all good stuff, classic science fiction issue-driven myth making in the manner of "The World, The Flesh and the Devil," which also had a triangle involving two white characters and a black character. The performers are entirely committed to the director's vision, as is Orr, whose careful framing and movement reveals the film's wilderness panoramas (shot on location in New Zealand) with tremendous intelligence as well as an appreciation for the textures of mountains and forests, and the way muted light fills up the interior of a dilapidated convenience store. There are many sharply written, directed and performed moments of illumination and anxiety.
There are a lot of problems, too, though, and they might prove to be deal breakers for some. One is the studied nature of the performances. Who knows if it's the direction or simply an instinctive response to the script, but some of Eijofor's choices feel overly deliberate here, for the first time I can remember (he's one of the great leading men right now). Robbie fares slightly worse in that her "southern" accent and mannerisms are so polished that I never quite bought Ann as anything other than a technically excellent performance. There's nothing outwardly "wrong" about Robbie's work here, and maybe it's unfair to complain about somebody who's put so much thought into her work, but all you have to do is picture somebody more naturalistic and maybe American (a young Sissy Spacek, maybe, or Elizabeth Banks the way she was in "Magic Mike XXL") and you can sense the kind of missed opportunity I'm trying to describe. Pine fares best of the three leads, although to be fair he's playing the closest thing to an action hero, somebody defined mainly by his presence in a scene, the way he moves and reacts. He's great at that, and he is also, for some reason (maybe his Americanness?) more believable as a drawling, scruffy, slightly dangerous backwoods American than his costars are in their roles.
Worse, "Z for Zachariah" is ultimately too dramatically slight and brief for its ambitions, despite its sometimes labored myth-making script and visuals. And it's ultimately unwilling to truly commit to the idea of life during the end of the world as we know it. This is one of the few science fiction films I've seen recently where the production design, costumes, hair and makeup effectively neutralize a lot of what the screenplay and direction and performances are trying to accomplish. Ann's house looks too clean, too nice, too fussed-over, almost like a vacation home that a movie producer might stay in while convincing himself he was getting back in touch with the natural world. Caleb's been sleeping in the woods for weeks when we first meet him, but when he takes off his baseball cap, he's got a fashionable brush cut that looks like it might've been administered at a high-end Beverly Hills salon. Zachariah's hair and beard are just as well-tended, and the signature light tan jacket that he wears in outdoor scenes is immaculately clean and so crisp that it seems to have been ironed seconds before the cameras started rolling. There's a shot late in the film, after Ann has been put through the emotional wringer, that's just so wrong in its visual particulars (she's resting her head on a tabletop that's obviously just been cleaned within an inch of its life, and wearing a fuzzy cable-knit sweater that seems to have come right out of a gift box) that you roll your eyes when you should be weeping for everything that's been lost. Details like this are way too Hollywood, and they take you out of the story just when you should be immersed in it most deeply.
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