Martin McCann (The Frankenstein Chronicles) plays an unnamed protagonist, eking out a living in a one-room cabin amongst the greenery of some far away Irish forest. He’s proficient in weaponry, carpentry and… gardening. His body is tight and muscly; his face is shallow and emotionless. His days are simple and built around one desire: to live long enough to get to the next one.
Directed by Stephen Fingleton, and marking his directorial debut, a cursory glance of The Survivalist’s synopsis hints at an Irish Mad Max. However, huffing car chrome and witnessing high speed chases are far from on the books in this apocalyptic drama. It’s never made abundantly clear what’s happened to the world, but the opening credits give some sort of idea as it shows how mankind grows to outnumber earth’s natural resources.
Fingleton, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t rush to tell his tale. This glacial pace is characterised by the film’s opening, where we follow our non-monikered hero – we’ll use Survivalist – in his day to day life of cleaning, toiling in his vegetable garden and reminiscing over faded photos of possible loved ones. It’s such a bleak and unforgiving existence, you’d be forgiving for thinking that this Survivalist is punishing himself to absolve his sins. When Kathryn (Olwen Fouere, This Must Be the Place) and her daughter Milja (Mia Goth, Nymphomaniac) emerge from the bushes one day, they threaten to upturn the Survivalist’s carefully planned routine. It doesn’t help that mother Kathryn would like to see him out of his home as soon as possible, and is happy to use her daughter’s body to get her way.
The Survivalist’s opening scenes foreshadow the pace that’s to come, highlighting the slow, calculated method of storytelling being employed. One that, as hinted at earlier, relies on showing – not telling. Whilst this kind of filmmaking can often pay off in spades – see most recently Donna McCrae’s Lost Gully Road – The Survivalist feels somewhat weighted down by it. Despite running just shy over 90 minutes, it can be a stifling struggle to get from one scene to the next, chipping away at your patience as time moves on. Even the arrival of the suspicious mother and daughter does little to grease the wheels of the plot, leaving the film to feel tiresome at times rather than hypnotic.
That said, there is enough here to recommend at least giving The Survivalist a chance. In particular, the three central performances are very good. Given very little to say, the actors are left to use their bodies to express the feelings bubbling underneath. Skirting the edge before falling into silent film territory, it was quite easy to be reminded of Steve Oram’s comedy-horror Aaaaaaaah!, which replaced all human dialogue with the guttural howls of apes. Society has been misshapen to such a degree in The Survivalist that communication is the first victim of its new nihilism. Meaningful glances and frowns are the order of the day, and it largely works in the film’s favour.
Equally impressive is the film’s gorgeous backdrop, which, because of its beauty and bold colour, highlights the bleak pantomime playing out before us. Nature appears to have forgotten about humanity, and leaves it to hopefully one day snuff out its own candle.
If you’re looking for something more Cormac McCarthy than George Miller, The Survivalist is certainly going to tick all your boxes. However, for everyone else, despite being as sinewy as its protagonist, The Survivalist will be an overly long, cold affair. It’s not a wholly unpleasant experience, but it sadly leaves you wanting more.
THE REEL SCORE: 6/10