There is a moment towards the end of Stephen Fingleton’s 2015 “The Survivalist” where a character smokes a cigarette, and the ash, instead of falling off, forms a droopy grey cylinder, and at the point in the film that this occurs, we can’t help but think to ourselves that the ash is a metaphor for the three central characters; clinging on for dear life out of sheer will when they should have given up long by now.
This is a lean, terse film, full of stillness and rapidity, where the characters act like coiled springs. Set in an unspecified post-apocalyptic scenario not too far from where we are now, this is a film that offers little in the way of explanation for what happens, but unfolds methodically and with a gruelling, precise logic. Interpersonal communication has long been forgotten by these people, and the exact worth of the world and everything in it can be measured exactly by what it does to keep you alive. The title of the film is “The Survivalist”, and that does refer to the unnamed protagonist played by Martin McCann, but it also describes the mindset of everyone still alive; that is, just trying to stay that way.
This is not to say the film is devoid of all human drama (although what’s there is scant), but it’s more an exploration of what happens when society crumbles and we stop seeing human beings as other human beings (there’s a moment where a character leafs through a book of atrocities with the caption “man’s inhumanity to man”). After a lengthy prologue that establishes McCann’s survivor as a hermit living out a hellish Walden-esque existence alone in a cabin in the woods, two women, a mother (Olwen Fouere) and daughter (Mia Goth) stumble across his cabin and make a plea to bargain for some of his food. McCann declines. After they use all their bartering tools, they simply ask for a meal and to stay the night. McCann takes up their offer, reluctantly, and his shotgun remains pointed at them at all times. The trio measure up their uses for each other, and it is silently decided that they should stick around.
Another film might have set up some kind of relationship between the trio, and in a sense it does, but Fingleton is too committed to his hellscape to allow any sentimentality to seep in, and I doubt that these three say more than fifty words to each other over the 100 minute runtime. They move around each other like mannequins, and occupy space in a stilted, awkward way. Goth and McCann’s character have sex, but even this feels like a formality, and any emotional connection between them is constantly rooted in an unspoken equation; what do I get from keeping this person alive, and what would I gain from killing them? A semi-backstory is revealed for McCann’s character, which serves as a sort of explanation for his wired, cagey persona, but not as much as the overall surroundings do. His gaunt, haunted performance speaks more than any flashback.
I admired this approach, and it conjures up what seemed to me to be a more realistic vision of a collapsed society. The actors are all uniformly game, and commit to the material, each having to bare all at various points, and Fingleton is respectful enough to create an entire nightmarish world around them that justifies their nakedness. It leads to moments of tension, in the scenes where McCann’s cabin is smoked out by quiet outsiders with probing torches, but tension is not the goal, and this is not a thriller. Nor is it a drama; it’s a whole.
It is rare amongst films of this genre in that it seems to be exploring not what the world would look like after the downfall of civilisation, but how we would all look, and what would happen to us as people. In this sense it is more like a pared back, nihilistic version of Children of Men, with even less hope. But it is undeniably impressive, unflinching filmmaking, magnificently composed with earthy hues and a precise camera placement, that impresses deeply on the viewer the sense that lofty concepts of human nature, and man’s spirit, are all redundant when it’s a case of you, or me. Humans are animals, after all.