Rated PG-13. Running time: 1 hour 35 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 1; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
God is my shield, who saves the upright in heart.
Director Craig Zobel and writer Nissar Modi’s film is one of the more unusual post-apocalyptic movies that I have seen. It is set in a secluded valley somewhere in the mountains where a devout young woman named Ann (Margot Robbie) is the soul survivor, with only her frisky dog for companionship. Unlike so many films of this genre, there are no scenes of destruction and terror, no radiation-created zombies attacking the healthy—indeed, no violence at all, just the struggle to survive physically and cope with relationships that arise when the sole survivor of her village discovers she is not alone.
One day while Ann is out scouting near her farmhouse she comes across a black man dressed in an elaborate radiation suit and pulling a cart full of his possessions. At first she watches from afar, but when, after testing the air and finding no radiation in the valley, he shouts for joy and strips everything off, quickly plunging into a pool beneath a waterfall, she rushes forward yelling at him. Startled by her command to get out of the water, he grabs his pistol when he clambers out. She assures him she intends no harm, telling him that the water he has bathed in comes from outside the valley, and thus is contaminated by the radiation that has killed off most of life outside. As he quickly grows sicker, she rushes him to her house where, injects him with the medicine he has brought along. Through the ensuing days she nurses him back to health, until at last he is able to get up and stand on his own.
John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) turns out to be a research scientist, and thus not impressed with her belief in a caring God. Nonetheless he comes to admire how she has been able to cope on her own. For an unexplained reason the valley has not fallen prey to the nuclear destruction that devastated the outside world, though what happened to the other villagers remains a mystery. When Ann, clad in a homemade radiation-shielded suit, visits the town we see no dead bodies in its deserted streets and buildings. She did have a family, but they went in search of other survivors, leaving her behind in the valley. Ann survives by raising produce on the farm, trapping small animals, and scavenging canned goods from a nearby convenience store. She plows by hand because she has used up the gas for the tractor. John tells her he can extract gasoline from the convenience store tanks even though there is no electricity available to operate the pumps, which he does to her delight.
We see that the allegorical reference to the Eden story comes from one of the many books Ann has brought back from the town library. It is a children’s religious book named for the first man, A Is For Adam. We surmise from the film’s title that John is the last man, Z for Zachariah. Ann, whose father was minister at the tiny wooden church near the farm, has found comfort playing the old pump organ (though we hear no familiar hymns, just non-descript organ music). Thus the building is a source of comfort for her. John however sees the church as providing the lumber and hardware to build a water wheel to generate electricity for them for light and heat during the upcoming winter. When Ann resists his plan to tear down the structure, he sets it aside.
Over the course of weeks John grows more than just fond of her, despite the age gap between them. She, still a virgin, also develops romantic feelings for him, but though not a man of faith, he possesses a core of ethics that keeps them from satisfying their sexual desires too soon. We see in a scene in which they drink wine together that Ann is not one of those frigid church girls that populate so many movies—indeed, one of the things I like about the depiction of her is that she is sincere in her faith, but free from a narrow moralistic lifestyle. Ann enjoys the bottle of wine they share at a meal, and thanks to an old wind-up gramophone, enjoys slow dancing with John.
And not only with John. A third person enters the picture in the person of Caleb (Chris Pine) who shows up with a heavy backpack. John is highly suspicious of him, but Ann persuades him to allow Caleb to pitch his tent for the night. The one night turns into many as Caleb, deciding the valley is a good place to stay, moves into the house, and through his claim to faith, slowly into Ann’s heart. We wonder if John’s reserve toward him is just jealousy–which it partly is—or if he has genuine grounds for suspecting the slick talking stranger’s trustworthiness. In allegorical terms, is Caleb the Snake in Eden? Caleb at least provides a welcome extra pair of hands after Ann reluctantly agrees to the tearing down of the church and using the lumber for John’s proposed waterwheel for powering the old farm generator. There is also the hard labor of cutting down enough cable from the old powerlines and stringing it out from the waterfall to the farmhouse. Apparently setting aside his jealousy out of concern for what is best for Ann, he tells her that it is okay by him if she chooses Caleb over him.
I have not read the source of the film, the novel by Robert C. O’Brien, but I have read that the third person is an addition, one that might upset readers of the book. However, just in terms of the film, Caleb adds greatly to the plot and themes of survival, companionship, jealousy, and faith. The film takes its time in developing the relationships, especially in its depiction of virgin Ann’s blossoming sexuality. There are so many tender moments to treasure in the film. All three actors are perfectly cast, each convincingly portraying their thoughts and feelings through facial expression and body language as much as through words. All through the film viewers are kept off balance by developments, a feeling which is intensified by the film’s ambiguous ending. You might be wondering about this long after the credits have stopped rolling. I am pretty certain this will make Visual Parables “Top Ten” list—and would love to see it mentioned at Oscar time.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Oct. issue of VP.