[This is a re-post of my review from the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Z for Zachariah opens today in limited release.]
If the Garden of Eden had been real, would a serpent and a piece of fruit really been necessary to bring about man’s fall from grace? Or was it original sin that prevents us from ever recreating Eden because no matter the circumstances, we will always carry our frailty and fears? Craig Zobel’s quiet and thoughtful Z for Zachariah takes humanity back to a state of nature where the dangers of a post-apocalypse aren’t a matter of resources or tribes, but basic human interactions between two or three people. The films only actors—Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine—all deliver terrific performances in this meditative and haunting exploration of faith, weakness, and perseverance.
Ann (Robbie) lives self-sufficiently in a beautiful safe haven that has managed to survive mass destruction and nuclear fallout. One day while out hunting, she comes across John (Ejiofor), who is wearing a biohazard suit that protects him from the radiation. When he comes to Ann’s land, he believes he’s found a place free from contamination, and excitedly runs to a waterfall only to discover that its source is toxic. Ann saves John, and the two begin to build a life together, but their new tranquility is shaken by the arrival of Caleb (Pine), another survivor who has wandered into their peaceful homestead.
But even before Caleb arrives, Zobel shows us how with even just two people—people completely removed from society and institutions—foibles arise. Z for Zachariah doesn’t hinge on melodramatic betrayals or intense standoffs. It derives plenty of drama from watching two people slowly form a bond that’s both fragile and necessary. Forgiveness isn’t just a kindness in this world; it’s essential because outside of Ann’s land lies only death. Watching Ann and John wrestle with transgressions, both large and small, is incredibly captivating. We become drawn into the somber, melancholy atmosphere and gripping chemistry between the actors.
After seeing Robbie in Z for Zachariah, I have no doubt she’s the real deal. She was good in The Wolf of Wall Street, but her performance here displays her range as she shows us a woman who is reserved but also strong, and while Ann is certainly attractive, the movie makes sure that’s not her defining attribute. Ejiofor continues to give excellent performances, and this is Pine’s best dramatic work to date. They are the only three actors in the film, and they are all astounding in every scene as they perfectly match Zobel’s carefully crafted tone.
Once Caleb enters the picture, the drama is amplified, but Zobel continues with the same mature, patient tone. We know we’ve come across a unique love triangle, but with three people who are, for all intents and purposes, the last three people on the planet, their personal shortcomings still seep through. It’s nice to think that society is the problem and if we all worked together then life would be grand. But this state of nature doesn’t change who Ann, John, and Caleb are. Yes, they all entered this peaceful land having lived before the apocalypse tore everything asunder, but even a cataclysmic event can’t remove innate jealousy, mistrust, and fear. Z for Zachariah isn’t concerned so much with who might shoot you in the back as much as who’s going to break your heart.
With his previous film Compliance, Zobel showed how easily human beings can be broken down and that our morality is a cheap façade in the face of disrupted societal norms. Z for Zachariah takes his interest in human frailty a step further by trusting his audience. I see far too many films that spoon-feed viewers every theme and event, but Zobel trusts us to infer what happens off-screen and what the characters are thinking and feeling. He’s playing a post-apocalyptic film as softly as possible, which forces us to focus in on the human drama rather than the disheartening circumstances. The landscapes in the movie are gorgeous; it’s the personal relationships that are troubling.
At one point, John tells Ann he was, “looking for a place like this without ever believing for a second it could exist.” Her land may looks like heaven on Earth, but sinners occupy it. Not evil people—just people. They’re people who manipulate and deceive out of jealousy and fear. They also love, cooperate, and confess. Eden is gone, and as Z for Zachariah wonderfully shows, when the rest of the Earth follows, any peace left will still be filled with our original sins.