A Review of Craig Zobel’s Z for Zachariah: Post-Apocalyptic Drama Meets Lifetime Romance

Z for Zachariah Movie Review

Film: Z for Zachariah
Director: Craig Zobel
Primary Cast: Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine
US Release Date: 28 August 2015

A version of the following review was published by Side B Magazine and can be found on their blog, here. 

Z for Zachariah
Z for Zachariah is a post-apocalyptic and slow-burning romantic thriller that first premiered at Sundance in January of this year. The film is based on the 1974 Robert C. O’Brien novel of the same name and was directed by Craig Zobel (Compliance, Great World of Sound).

Z for Zachariah follows Ann (Robbie), who lives alone on her family’s farm in a beautiful valley which somehow survived the nuclear disaster that wiped out the rest of civilization (at least in the US). One day, Ann sees a man on the road (Ejiofor) while she is out looking for food. She is clearly startled by the man, who screams in triumph when he sees the verdant valley around him.

Ann follows the man (whose name is John Loomis), until she finds him bathing in what she knows to be contaminated water. John falls gravely ill almost immediately, and Ann brings him back to her home, where she nurses him back to health.

Before “the shit hit the fan,” John was a research engineer for the government. After recovering from his illness, he devises a plan to build a water wheel to provide electricity to Ann’s farm. Unfortunately, the only source of enough wood is the church that Ann’s father built and preached in. Ann is deeply religious and is upset by the idea of tearing down the church.

As time goes on, John and Ann grow closer. Then, Ann runs into a man named Caleb (Pine) while she is out with her dog. Caleb asks Ann for water, and she takes him back to the farm so that she can give him some. After meeting John, Caleb says that he is ill, and Ann and John both agree to let him stay with them until he has regained his strength.

John soon begins exhibiting signs of jealousy and fears that Ann will choose Caleb instead of him. Meanwhile, Caleb convinces Ann to let John dismantle the church for his water wheel project.
Watch Z for Zachariah now. 

My Review
Z for Zachariah features some beautiful images and is bolstered by a pair of stellar performances. The film is also interested in a number of large and endlessly intriguing ideas—primarily, the human will to survive, and whether or not religion (by which, I mean Christianity) and science can peacefully coexist. That said, many of Z for Zachariah’s flashes of brilliance are dimmed by the fact that its story squanders a good deal of its rich thematic potential.

I only watched Z for Zachariah at all, because I wanted to see Robbie and Ejiofor’s performances. After thoroughly enjoying Robbie’s work in The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and after being floored by Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, I was eager to see what each of them would bring to Zobel’s film.

Fortunately, neither Robbie nor Ejiofor disappoints in Z for Zachariah. In fact, the quality of their performances and their clear commitment to Zobel’s vision are both a large part of what helps to keep the film afloat. Robbie and Ejiofor infuse remarkable psychological depth into both of their performances, and the interactions between them feel both appropriately strained and incredibly genuine. Given all that the characters in Z for Zachariah have lived through, it’s not hard to imagine a pair of lesser actors taking things out of the pensive and realistic world of the film and into the realms of hysterics and melodrama. With Z for Zachariah, Robbie demonstrates that she possesses considerable range as an actress, and Ejiofor makes it very clear that his incredibly moving performance in 12 Years a Slave was anything but a fluke. As a woman and black man, these two may face some difficulty securing quality leading roles down the road, but I certainly hope that this isn’t the case.

While there is nothing that is clearly wrong with Pine’s performance, he never fully meshes into the fabric of the film. This may have something to do the fact that Caleb is an intruder into John and Ann’s life, but I can’t help but feel that Pine was simply miscast.

Z for Zachariah was shot by Tim Orr and presents viewers with a number of beautiful images, most of which feature the landscape surrounding Ann’s home. Z for Zachariah does not look like your typical “post-apocalyptic drama.” A darkness hangs over the film, and it certainly finds its way into its images, but not in the way that one might expect. Instead of depicting violent scenes of mass apocalyptic chaos, Z for Zachariah focuses on what’s left when the dust settles, and Orr’s stunning shots of green trees and golden fields are infused with a sense of foreboding and desolation that weighs heavily on all that it touches.

Zobel’s latest works best as a moody character study, but it’s also interested in number or larger topics; for instance, underneath the film’s story of love and jealously lurks a tale about the relationship between science and religion. The idea of turning an area’s only church into electricity that will help Ann survive is an intriguing one for obvious reasons. Moreover, by making it clear that John is a scientist and that he does not share Ann’s faith—he never mocks her for it either—allows Z for Zachariah to function on a highly symbolic level. Perhaps the film means to use the relationship between Ann and John to assure viewers that science and religion (and black and white) can coexist, can help each other survive, and can form the basis for an entire society (this reading is complicated by some of John’s actions late in the film, but it is still present).

Unfortunately, anything meaningful that the film has to say about science or religion is largely obscured by its story. Once Caleb enters the picture, Z for Zachariah begins to lose its way. Zobel devotes a great deal of attention to John’s jealousy and to the question of who will get to be with Ann in the end; in doing so, he disregards many of the questions that are posed by the film’s first section. If viewers were led to believe that Caleb is genuinely religious (as Ann is), then this part of the story might not have weakened the film as much as it does; if Caleb could be seen as religious, then his struggle with John and his relationship with Ann would at least serve some clearer thematic purpose. Though it’s never said out loud, John and Caleb are each striving to be the father of the new society that they imagine building with Ann, but the stakes of this conflict don’t seem to reach much further than their individual egos.

Z for Zachariah presents itself as a contemplative film that wants to give viewers something to think about, but audiences are much more likely to leave asking “What was the point?” than wrestling with any worthwhile philosophical questions. There are well-written lines and moments all throughout Z for Zachariah, but they don’t quite come together, and the film’s decision to focus on a predictable love triangle is one of the primary reasons why.

Z for Zachariah’s failure to capitalize on the ideas it introduces is a problem, but it’s slow pace is not. This character-driven drama is much more about the spaces and feelings between Ann, John, and Caleb than it is about any series of actions on their part. And even if the film doesn’t quite live up to its own potential, its atmosphere, its images, and its two leads performances are still worth experiencing.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading! Did Z for Zachariah live up to your expectations? Let me know with a comment below!

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