Anybody who’s seen Craig Zobel’s previous film Compliance, wherein a man at the end of a phone convinces the whole staff of a fast food restaurant that he was a police officer and to do what he says, knows not to expect things to get wrapped up neatly in tidy little bow. If they haven’t, it might be a strange experience to watch Z for Zachariah, a very loose adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s 1974 young adult, post-apocalyptic drama. Nothing is clear-cut, things are intuited more than explained, and there’s definitely no nice, neat bow at the end. But if you like your end-of-the-world melodramas about people rather than zombies, then you might just find something great.
I hadn’t read the novel in question, though I certainly heard of it. I think it was taught in 7th grade to people in a specific reading class, of which I was not a part. Certainly I had no idea it was about a post-nuclear-war world, and from the film you don’t entirely realize what’s happened. The movie isn’t really about that; it’s sort of an exploration of people attempting to survive using their basest and yet most deceptive aspects of themselves. This is a topic and approach Zobel likely relishes, because nobody’s perfect, and most people are deeply, horrendously flawed.
Sometime following an ambiguous kind of nuclear annihilation, years we’re led to believe, Ann (Margot Robbie) and her dog live in her family farmhouse in a valley that, strangely enough, has been spared entirely from contamination. She suits up and ventures out to contaminated towns to pick up what supplies she can, but it’s a very solitary existence. One day, she sees a motor vehicle on the road and then spies someone walking around in a large suit. This man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a scientist who has been searching for such a safe zone for a while and happily begins to bathe in a waterfall. Ann runs over to tell him that he’s actually bathing in the end point of a contaminated river. He gets immediately sick and needs Ann to help him back to health.
As they get to know each other, Ann and the man — whom we learn is called John — begin to like each other, though a huge rift exists between them, namely one of faith. Ann is a very devout Christian, her beloved father was a preacher and built a small chapel on their land; John, on the other hand, is decidedly not a believer. Slowly, though, their affection grows, until one day, a man named Caleb (Chris Pine) appears on the farm, having stolen some eggs. He claims to have been in a mine and finally made his way out. John is very cautious about this man, but is he merely concerned that he is who he says he is, or is it innate jealousy? They allow Caleb to stay in order to help build a water generator, but the game of one-upsmanship between John and Caleb continues, and nobody escapes unscathed.
What really works about this movie, as was the case with Compliance, is that everyone is culpable for something, and people are very unwilling to tell each other the whole truth. The audience doesn’t even know what is or is not the real truth a lot of the time, having to either accept the story given or reject it. This, from what tiny research I’ve done, is not quite the same as the book, in which Ann and John are the only characters. The addition of Caleb adds more tension and creates an unstable environment based around choice and consequences and not merely admissions and fallouts of admissions.
In truth, this movie isn’t about the post-apocalypse at all; that’s just the setting. What we really have is a home life upended by an untrustworthy third party, but really no one is trustworthy, neither devout nor godless. People make mistakes and choices and are petty even in these extreme circumstances. The cast all handles these intricacies and subtleties incredibly well, and while the movie doesn’t necessarily need Pine’s character to show up, it certainly changes the trajectory. The trailer makes it seem a lot more like a thriller than I think it is, but it’s still an intriguing and emotional journey with some fine performances all around.