Sunday, September 06, 2015

Z for Zachariah

Z FOR ZACHARIAH (Craig Zobel, 2015)

After the apocalypse Ann (Margot Robbie) must fend for herself at the family’s apple farm in the valley. Her parents left to search for survivors. Eventually her thirteen-year-old brother departed to look for their mom and dad. Getting by day to day isn’t easy, especially without electricity and no companion but a dog, but Ann is resourceful and keeps the faith in a place the closest thing to Eden in Z FOR ZACHARIAH’s harsh, radioactive world.

One day she comes across the first person she’s seen in a year. John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a civil contractor who was in a bunker a mile underground when the disaster occurred but becomes unwell from bathing in the poisonous water Ann finds him in. She nurses John back to health, and they become close, as might be expected of a man and a woman who may well be the only people around for a great expanse or anywhere. Although Ann shows desire for becoming physically intimate, John suggests they wait because it will change things.

Then Ann stumbles upon Caleb (Chris Pine), a miner who has traveled from fifty miles away and is planning to go south to the gulf where he believes others may be. Ann is glad to welcome more company, but John is suspicious of this newcomer. Caleb does not intend to stay long but grows comfortable there. He assists with John’s project to restore power to the house and bonds with Ann through their shared Christianity. While their situation has improved, a strained competition exists between the men for Ann’s affection.

Faith looms large in Z FOR ZACHARIAH. As the daughter of a minister who moved the family to this spot because he believed it would be protected, Ann has good reason to trust that God has a plan even in terrible times like this. Loneliness and winter’s coldness have made Ann question her will to continue, but her belief gives her the encouragement to press on. Despite the hardships, the land and tools available to her meet her needs. Ann recognizes that for all of the rewards promised in the Bible, the holy book never claims that life will be easy. Caleb’s view is less nuanced. He is convinced that they survived because they have faith, as though their convictions earn a kind of cosmic immunity, although his logic doesn’t account for a non-believing John.

There’s also a non-religious faith held by characters and the audience at work in Z FOR ZACHARIAH. Ann is the least guarded of the three, and thus there is no reason not to take her at her word. Robbie gives a strong performance in expressing the necessary toughness to endure this scenario while maintaining the youthful naiveté that may also be an asset to her mental well-being. The inclination is to rely on John’s story as being true while nurturing some skepticism about Caleb’s, at least at first. Ejiofor oozes decency and intelligence, yet he plays John as though an unspoken darkness gnaws at him. Pine challenges the first impression of Caleb, making him seem dangerous or authentic depending on the angle he’s seen from.

Director Craig Zobel’s previous film COMPLIANCE hinges on individuals accepting at face value what they’re being told and following through on it with horrible consequences. In Z FOR ZACHARIAH there is no way of knowing for certain if anyone is being honest, just the reliance on gut instincts. Zobel wrings tension from the scenario by toying with how actions might appear based on available information. John viewing Ann from a distance through a rifle’s scope brings his trustworthiness into question early on until we learn Ann suggested he watch her through it. Before their paths cross Caleb presumably is the one eavesdropping on Ann playing the organ, which, fairly or not, leads to a conclusion about his credibility. He also aims a gun near John while the two are out hunting, although he does so to hit his target, not his potential romantic rival.

For viewers the test of whether to believe the best or worst about Ann, John, and Caleb extends through Z FOR ZACHARIAH’s ending. Regardless of how the conclusion is interpreted, it seems to be an argument for giving people the benefit of the doubt. For the characters putting trust in each other may mean something as critical as the difference between living and dying or valuable as upholding social stability. In this extreme circumstance they have no one to place their faith in but one another. These are active players in determining their own fates. Whether their trust proves to be misplaced or not, they are likely better off giving than withholding it.

Grade: B

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