The Survivalist. 2015. Directed & Written by Stephen Fingleton.
Starring Martin McCann, Mia Goth, Andrew Simpson, Olwen Fouere, Douglas Russell, Kieri Kennedy, Ryan McParland, Michael Og Lane, Claran Flynn, Hussina Raja, Logan Kerr, Aran Downey, Sean Doupe, and Matthew Henry. The Fyzz Facility Film One.
Rated 18A. 104 minutes.
I’d been excited for a while after hearing of The Survivalist, as I kept on hearing there was something different about it than other films like it. You will no doubt think of many different science fiction romps where the end of the world is upon us, perhaps everything from The Road to Mad Max and more. However, there is a quiet elegance, a beauty about writer-director Stephen Fingleton’s debut feature film which you won’t always find in other similarly themed movies; this is certainly more close to the Cormac McCarthy adaptation than the early Mel Gibson star vehicle.
What we get here is a world of lush visuals, the earth still vibrant and beautiful, as starvation is rampant and has turned humanity in on itself. Whereas something like The Road explored a total end of the world style situation, where humans were indeed beginning to fold on another, The Survivalist takes on a small story within a bigger world yet it manages to tackle some other issues. Right from the beginning 15 minutes you’ll understand this is a unique and vastly different science fiction thriller than you’re used to. But that doesn’t mean anything bad. Completely the opposite – the unusual nature of this movie will draw you into its complex, and at times both dark and gorgeous world. Featuring a breakout performance from Martin McCann, the plot of The Survivalist comes alive, it grows on you and in you, presenting a incomparable vision of a world future that’s incredibly terrifying at times.
The Survivalist (Martin McCann) feeds off the land, or what he can, anyways. Earth as it is now, in the future, has found itself ravaged by starvation. People grow crops where and when they can. Not everyone is able to do everything they want, as humanity crumbles further and further. Violence is a new way of life for many. Money is no longer of any use, neither are bits of gold, watches, anything that would’ve been used as currency in the old days. Living on his own, The Survivalist manages to get through the day, each day, one after another.
Except one day his daily routine is interrupted. Two women come to the door – Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) and her daughter Milja (Mia Goth). They need and want food. They offer up gold and trinkets, but The Survivalist wants none of those things. Nothing is of much use to him anymore. Only Kathryn offers him something far more intriguing, something he has not had for far to long: sex with a woman, Milja to be exact. After they spend a night together, The Survivalist’s life changes, becoming drastically different than it was before. And not for the better, as an arrangement he strikes with the two women devolves into something worse. Suddenly, his whole world and his life are threatened, more than ever.
The central performance of Martin McCann stuck with me almost from the first frame. He’s got a naturally piercing pair of eyes, though, his acting gives them fire. Even just by himself there is a whole world behind his eyes, and you can watch him go through a range of emotions simply by looking into them. Without words, in many of the scenes, McCann can bring us into the character’s head so well. Combined with the sweeping and emotive cinematography of Damien Elliott, the performance McCann gives is powerful, capturing him in such wonderfully framed shots that it’s hard not to want to keep staring at them long after they’re gone.
Likewise, both Mia Goth and Olwen Fouere are excellent. Fouere, the older of the two, sort of gives Goth the lead-in; both cold, calculating women, but each of them quiet and inconspicuous. They’re like mirrors of one another, or perhaps Goth’s Milja is a shadow of Fouere’s Kathryn. Either way, they both express similar subtle power as McCann, which in turn compliments his performance in the right kind of sense. Three of them together can make an ordinary scene into something much more, and all without much dialogue.
That brings me to another thing I love: the screenplay. Fingleton doesn’t make a typical post-apocalyptic film, which he easily could have done. Yes, as I said, there are parts of The Survivalist that will seem familiar. But it’s in the way Fingleton lets his plot and story play out, twisting, turning quickly at times (though paced at a steady rhythm). That’s why it all works. Even more than that, the exposition is cut to a minimum here, the bare minimum. If there’s even any at all, in terms of the overall story of what’s happening. When it comes to The Survivalist himself there is a brief portion of expository dialogue where he reveals a small piece of his own story, although it isn’t much. I dig that because we don’t have to know a ton about him; several of his actions speak louder than words.
The entire aesthetic of the film, visuals and sound design included, are so perfectly fitting, full-stop. There is certainly a slow burn feel to the movie, interrupted now and then by situations which give the plot energy, but no matter what is happening at any given time there’s a continually fluid darkness to every frame. From one minute to the next, the cinematography captures everything with a somber beauty, as even the colourful green pastures and clear sunny skies take on a heavy foreboding quality. I always love when the visuals in a film can maintain that gritty feel despite a night or day setting. Because make no mistake, The Survivalist is 150% grim. There are bright and bouncy locations, as the little cabin and the tiny field of crops sitting among healthy green trees all look pretty. But with everything happening within the story there is a black cloud looming constantly, which comes across brilliantly in the cinematography. Coupled with that, the sound design – without a score – takes us deep into the world of the film, from wind blowing between the cracks of the cabin and regular everyday noises like the scraping of plates, the rattle of a mug, to the rush of the river and the natural sounds of the outdoors. Some people might not like that, but I suspect they might be not of the type who enjoy this sort of film in general. Yet if you’re willing to give it a chance the movie’s look and feel, its atmosphere, will get into you with its hooks.
A quality 5-star film, an amazing debut feature out of Stephen Fingleton. We’re often bombarded with a lot of low budget science fiction films that aim too high before sinking too low with acting and visuals which never quite seem to cut it. In opposition to all those other less movies trying to hard and delivering nothing, The Survivalist goes for less while bringing so much more to the table. With a sparse yet impressively powerful style, Fingleton’s film is full of surprises. It is intense at its core, full of humanity, and above all else the performances root this story in a firm place, as the actors each use their talents to bring a tragic world to life before our eyes. I do hope Fingleton will bring us more to enjoy in the future – his vision of what the future looks like is scary, depicting a depleted human nature – so if that happens, I want more films like this, and quick.