The best thing to say about Stephen Fingleton’s feature film debut, The Survivalist, is that it completely strips away a lot of what many expect from your average movie. Here, we’re given a film with very little dialogue, almost no score, and characters that are mostly nameless. We witness as one man continues his life in a world where food is scarce, and the remaining humans will fight for the necessities to live another day. In the first 18 minutes of its 104-minute runtime, we see as the lead character, known only as Survivalist (Martin McCann) tends to his garden, uses the bathroom, and even pleasures himself. At least Fingleton isn’t afraid to hide the truth about what most men would do if they were single, living in a post-apocalyptic world, and haven’t had any intercourse for quite some time.
Through the pictures that are present, we note that the Survivalist was, at one point, a family man before the crash of civilization. This is how Fingleton, for the most part, is developing his main character, rather than just having him spout exposition the entire time. It’s effective to a point, having the viewer get a better sense of this person without beating them over the head with details, and it also makes him or her think about how he or she would try to survive on limited resources.
A graph in the film’s opening minutes shows us that the production of oil and the human race were both skyrocketing. Suddenly, oil production dropped, while the human population continued to grow. And then the human population began to decrease, and we are now in the current scenario of the movie.
As the Survivalist continues to go about his same routine every day, a woman named Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) and her daughter, Milja (Mia Goth), approach his home and beg for some food from his garden. When he refuses, she instead offers her daughter for exchange and also asks for them to stay for a while. He accepts their offer, but now must be more aware to his surroundings and make sure the women are protected from what evil lies around them.
It’s when the women enter that Fingleton begins to use exposition to give some more depth to his characters. He limits what they say, so we’re not spending the rest of the movie learning each and every detail about their background and still maintain the movie’s minimalist approach.
But the main issue with The Survivalist is, for as stripped down as it is, there isn’t much that feels like it’s a new approach to the post-apocalyptic genre. The scenery is exquisite, and the lack of music has the viewer appreciate it more than they might have if a score had been inserted into certain scenes.
We get the sense of loneliness early on, and then the sense of uncertainty when two strangers enter the film. It’s also a very brutal film, not afraid to show some graphic kills and get close on the removal of a bullet from someone’s stomach.
Fingleton captures it all quite well, and, for a while, I was enjoying The Survivalist. But then it just became too familiar, and we’re also thrown a curveball of a subplot that doesn’t stick.
Fingleton’s lack of dialogue is both a genius idea and also a bad one for The Survivalist once we get closer to the end. Without going into too much detail, Milja and the Survivalist begin to develop a relationship. Even though the first scene of them consists of her surrendering herself for a place to stay, and there are other times where they do have sex, it’s assumed that it’s out of obligation. The chemistry between the two is non-existent, and this romance feels tacked on for reasons I can’t say without revealing everything.
The performance by McCann is fine, and the best moments are him when he’s by himself. Goth and Fouere are also good pre-random love-story subplot. It’s not like Fingleton switched the film from a bare bones Mad Max story to a sort of Sweet Home Alabama in the forest, but it sure does feel out of left field and unnecessary.
The Blu-ray comes packed with a few short films in which Fingleton served as writer, and one in which he also directed. The one he wrote and directed, Magpie, serves as a precursor to The Survivalist, and features both McCann and Goth, while Olivia Williams and Paul Kennedy also appear here. It’s actually more of what I wished The Survivalist had been - a tough, gritty post-apocalyptic thriller that is beautifully shot.
The other two shorts here are ones that Fingleton wrote while someone else directed them. One is called Insulin, and it shows us how people would react if there was a shortage of insulin in the world. The other is Awaydays, which focuses on two boys who go stay with their father who has them do some cruel things on their visit. Both are worth checking out, although they’re not quite as good as Magpie.
The only other feature on the Blu-ray is a 20-minute making of feature, which plays like just about every other making-of feature.
Kudos, though, go to Fingleton for making a realistic thriller set after the world crumbles, and for making it effective for a period of time. One scene, in particular, involving a bunny near a bear trap intercutting with Milja taking care of some lady business in the forest had me holding my breath. I just wish the rest of the film had that same level of intensity and audaciousness.
The Survivalist will be released on October 3, 2017.