A stunning feature debut for director Stephen Fingleton, The Survivalist is a tense post-apocalyptic thriller with a strangely rural setting.
No Country For Old Menby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
The opening graphics tell us the world has suffered economic collapse. Then we are plunged straight into a time of starvation, where survival depends on doing whatever it takes to find food and shelter. But it’s not the stereotypical dystopian urban wasteland. We are in the heart of a damp, muddy forest, where a man with a shotgun is meticulously tending a tiny plot of vegetable plants outside his flimsy wooden shack. It’s clear he’s protecting his crops.
The Survivalist is writer/director Stephen Fingleton’s suspenseful first feature, set in his native Northern Ireland. It’s a post-apocalyptic thriller centred on character. Martin McCann plays the survivalist – we never learn his name. His clothes are patched, he is unkempt and pony-tailed. His routine and his self-built home are captured in detail. We see the intimacies of his daily routine of nurturing shoots, fertilising the soil with his urine, his mantraps, washing, cooking, keeping the fire going using pages torn from a Bible, the scraps of possessions from his former life that remain. Gradually we piece together where he is and what has happened. The only sound is his movements and the ambient sounds of the forest yet, with no dialogue, McCann’s gaunt, paranoid face holds the attention spellbindingly. There are intriguing flashes of scenes of flight, bodies and visceral burial in the woods, which could be either flashbacks or forward.
Two women emerge out of the forest – a starving middle-aged mother and her young adult daughter seeking to bargain seeds, now a valuable currency, for food and shelter for a night. When the survivalist refuses, the mother barters her daughter instead. Their resulting coupling is explicit. It’s the start of an intricate relationship of shifting power balanced between the three. The survivalist has been alone for seven years – even though he knows they could be a threat to his self-preservation, they are company. Against his better judgement he lets them stay, but we see the women are secretly plotting something. An uneasy arrangement evolves between the three of them, but an unspecified threat is ever present. From time to time, attacks come to them from outside in the shape of feral armed marauders seeking food. We see how great fear in the face of danger becomes, but also what people – who once may have been ordinary people like us – are prepared to do to survive. There’s one high-level shot of combat in a field of long grass that takes us out of their enclosed setting and shows how vulnerable they are in the wider world.
Every unsparing physical detail is uncomfortably convincing and realistic – there are no special effects. Shot in natural light, the images speak for themselves. There’s no music track to give emotional clues, the soundscape creates a subtle sense of displacement. For long stretches there is barely any dialogue. The effect is gripping and intense – watching it, you realise that you have been holding your breath, not knowing in which direction the film will take you, who will survive or what the resolution will be. One of Ireland’s best known stage and film actresses, Olwen Fouéré, is the pragmatic mother, Kathryn, whose flowing white hair gives her the air of an ancient priestess. Mia Goth (Nymphomanic II) is her daughter Milja, a child-woman, at first enigmatic, but maturing in the course of the film. All the central performances are outstanding. It’s an original and stunning debut for writer/director Fingleton.
The Survivalist is released on 12th February 2015 in the UK