Along with the technological and medical advancements of the 20th century came a rapid increase in population, followed by a rapid increase in oil production to sustain it. Somewhere in the near future, as the film’s opening graphic shows, our population curve will eventually eclipse our resources, and we’ll be fighting tooth and nail for survival. The post-apocalypse is an inherently dour setting, and there’s no real way to make it fun unless you throw in some zombies and then travel back in time to 2004, but The Survivalist is as close as any post-apocalypse story is going to get. To fun, not to time-travelling zombies. Then again, the film is kind of like Interstellar meets The Cabin In The Woods, but only in the sense that the world has run out of food and the entire thing takes place in and around an isolated cabin.
When I say the film is fun, I mean it in the same way Darren Aronofsky calls his films fun. He wants his work to be like an amusement park, and in a weird way, he succeeds. Stephen Fingleton is a first time writer-director who has crafted a film that, barring its first fifteen minutes, has a constant tension and a sense of desperate paranoia running all the way through it. Were I to describe the events of the film in mere words, it’d sound like a mundane snooze-fest (They walk into the cabin! They walk back outside!!), but a good hour and a half of its 109 minutes are an unyielding vice grip thanks to Fingleton’s attention to detail, and to his three main performers.
It’s an actor’s film through and through, though there’s no dearth of visual finesse. Martin McCann plays the nameless survivalist of the title, and all we really know about him is that he lives alone in the woods with his tiny farm and his limited ammunition, and that his brother died while they were running away from some raiders. It’s not much to go on by way of character, and the film is very, very light on dialog, but for a story such as this, it’s more than enough to understand his motivations. The film’s opening act is dedicated to the details. The survivalist’s daily routine, from how he collects water to how he cares for his makeshift farm, and how he does all of this with his eyes wide open, his shotgun by his side, and bear-traps all around his one-man neighborhood. It’s a lengthy introduction, and almost too drawn out, but it does provide a sense of the isolation he’s dealing with – more importantly, it allows us a brief glimpse into his occasional paranoia upon hearing even the slightest sound.
His entire balance is off-set when two women show up in search of food – Kathryn, an older woman who’s been hardened by the new world, and her silent but cunning teenage daughter Milja. What ensues is a standoff where only one party has weapons, but both parties have equal power. The survivalist takes aim, along with taking every possible precaution before reluctantly letting them inside one at a time. His initial refusal is met with Kathryn offering up her daughter to him for the night, a deal that none of the three parties take issue with or think twice about. It’s a new world with new rules, and everybody’s familiar with what needs to be done to survive. He brings them in to his home, allowing them to enter and invade the little world he’s created for himself, ordering them to stand exactly where he wants them to so they don’t pose a threat. He pats them down for weapons and looks through every inch of their backpacks, all the while sporting a look of sheer terror on his face.
Here’s a man who’s clearly afraid of being alone, but he’s also afraid to trust a single other human being, and perhaps rightly so. After all, Kathryn and Milja aren’t stupid. They know his farm isn’t enough to sustain three stomachs for very long, even if they do help out, and he knows it too. It’s a new world reminiscent of the old world, with simple routines and simple methods, but instead of banding together for the sake of progress, selfishness has become the crux of society. Everyone has to look at every other human being purely in terms of their utility, and it’s only a matter of time before someone takes action out of the need for self-preservation.
The Survivalist features no music save for the title character’s harmonica and the rustling of the trees. It goes to great lengths to incorporate the sounds of the elements to create mood (or enhance it, rather), and first-timer Fingleton, as he shall be known until someone’s smart enough to give him a second film, understands what part of the characters’ decision-making process is interesting in a film like this. The film’s beats exist in binaries. There are no third options for the most part, so any one of their suggestions has the automatic implication of a yes or no answer at each stage, and any conversation beyond that initial suggestion is an internal one. Kathryn asks if they can stay a second night, as the survivalist holds them at gunpoint just in case. He weighs the pros and cons in his mind, the yes and no of the matter reflected in his eyes – he wants to be around these two women, but he’s forced to put barriers and weapons between them and himself just to live. Rather than spelling it out, the film simply moves on to a later scene and allows us to pick up on what decision has been made. I felt so smart watching it! Jokes aside though, it can be tough for even seasoned directors to tell stories sans dialog if there’s little by way of setting to work with, but Fingleton manages to pull a rabbit out of the hat with this one.
The film has very little need for visual metaphor, but despite being so minimalist and with such a limited playground, it does manage to employ weirdly effective parallel action at times. Miljya ends up pregnant, and tries to self-terminate the pregnancy, while an innocent rabbit circles one of the traps outside. Later, one of the characters is on the verge of kicking the bucket, and we intrinsically understand that if they do, it’s curtains for another rabbit. The rabbits’ fates are tied to that of the three humans, not just because what happens to them is used to indicate what’s going on with our trio without being explicit, but because in each case, a rabbit being caught or not caught results in a turning point that’s just as important as what’s going on back at the cabin.
The Survivalist is a film where the three main characters are at constant odds with each other, but also need to band together to combat any outside forces that come their way. It’s about a family unit somehow existing in the face of societal breakdown, and its Northern Irish setting is a poetic one for a story about everybody running out of food once again. It’s the kind of indie that screams “festival film!” at you with its long, drawn-out takes of people performing mundane tasks, only every time something like that happens, it isn’t just to create mood or metaphor. It’s because the survival of these characters, perhaps even that of humanity itself, hinges upon whether or not they succeed.