The number of people who weren’t able to get into the press screening for The Witch earlier in the day created a slight panic for press and industry folks hoping to see Craig Zobel’s Z for Zachariah later that day. This was Craig’s third film at Sundance and unlike Great World of Sound and Compliance, this one had already been picked up for distribution by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions even before it even premiered.
Only knowing that the general concept involves a love triangle between three survivors of an apocalypse creates certain expectations for a very different film than it turned out being, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Much of the story revolves around Anne, a young and seemingly naïve preacher’s daughter played by Margot Robbie from The Wolf of Wall Street, whom we meet as she’s rummaging through a radioactive area looking for books. She’s living alone with her dog in a desolate area, using her skills for farming and hunting to survive. Shortly after we meet her, she encounters Chiwetel Ejiofor’s John, who is suffering from radiation poisoning, so she takes him in until he’s better. John is an engineer who comes up with an idea to build a waterwheel to power a generator that would bring electricity back, but building it would require resources that could only come from tearing down Anne’s father’s church.
The two of them start growing closer until 45 minutes into the movie, Chris Pine’s Caleb shows up to throw a monkey-wrench into things, having been skulking around even before then. Caleb has a lot more in common with Anne, which makes him more of a threat to John, but they find a way to coexist even as jealousy and paranoia exists between the two men’s intentions for Anne.
Other than the overall setting of a world with few survivors, Z for Zachariah has a lot more in common with a movie like The Road than say The Omega Man, since it’s more of a character drama than science fiction despite that setting. It’s another multi-layered film from Zobel that allows him to explore different aspects of society and how they might be affected when three different people are brought together. One of the biggest underlying themes is faith and religion and the differences between the three main characters and how it affects their interaction. It never harps on the race issue as one of the differences, although it does allow Ejiofor to get a laugh by stating what some might be thinking.
Margot Robbie was mighty impressive in Scorsese’s movie and she really proves herself to be the real deal with her performance as Anne, pulling off an extremely convincing portrayal of her innocence. The other two actors are equally good and the terrific overall performances confirm Zobel’s talents for bringing out the best in his actors.
It’s clear how much Zobel has grown as a filmmaker, creating such a lovely film with a much larger scope than his previous films, while still maintaining the tight and enclosed character dynamics that worked so well in his earlier work. The breathtaking New Zealand setting which doubles as the American South, as captured by David Gordon Green’s regular cinematographer Tim Orr, really adds to creating that scale.
As different as this is from Compliance, Zobel also once again works with that film’s composer Heather McIntosh, who creates a gorgeous score that brings so much to the film’s quiet tone.
There is a lot of ambiguity in the last act about what exactly happens and how you’re supposed to feel about it, but it’s the type of film one could definitely watch again in order to catch some of its many smaller nuances. It’s not a particularly mainstream film, but it’s certainly one that will appeal to the arthouse crowd who appreciates character-based storytelling.