[originally written 29Aug2015]
Z for Zachariah (Craig Zobel, 2015)
Two of my favorite directors in the history of cinema are Béla Tarr and Yasujiro Ozu, the masters of “slow film”. While I was watching Z for Zachariah, the new film from Craig Zobel (Compliance), I got the feeling throughout that Zobel is familiar with these two masters, and is working his way into slow-film-dom. I don’t think he’s quite there yet, but he’s on the right path.
The film opens with Ann (Suite Française‘s Margot Robbie) seemingly the last person in America after some sort of nuclear disaster. (Where is never mentioned, though the area, and the city we see her scavenging in the beginning, looks like Pittsburgh and its surroundings; the accents have a Kentucky feel to them, however.) It’s not long before we find out she’s not alone; John Loomis (12 Years a Slave‘s Chiwetel Ejiofor), a scientist who’s been holed up in an underground bunker, makes his way to the valley where Ann lives, and the two meet when she warns him about bathing in an irradiated pond. If you think you’re the last two people alive, the inevitable happens, but it’s complicated by their conflicting outlooks on life; Anne is a deeply religious preacher’s daughter, while John is a dedicated rationalist. The biggest bone of contention is about getting electricity back to the valley; John can build a waterwheel that’ll do the trick, but in order to do so, he needs the wood from Ann’s father’s chapel. As if there aren’t complications enough, a third party enters the valley: Caleb (Chris Pine, the latest incarnation of Captain Kirk), whose worldview is much closer to Ann’s, but with a pragmatic streak that makes him valuable philosophically to John as well. So, two guys and a gorgeous woman. You’ve seen this plot before.
The main difference, before I get into the whole slow film thing, is that Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi (Breaking at the Edge), working from Robert C. O’Brien’s novel, give us finely-drawn characters whose decisions are usually intelligent and well-thought-out, even if things turn out badly given some of them. (And the ones that aren’t are all easily explained by the stress of the situation.) The tl;dr version of this review, if that’s all you’re interested in, is that while not much happens during this movie, what does is compelling, and these are characters that are easily worth spending a couple of hours with.
You’ll also want to stop reading here if you’re extra-sensitive to spoilers; I don’t go into specifics, but knowing some of the things below may give away critical pieces of the plot. Caveat lector.
And now for the rest of you: compelling characters in precise situations are the exact
methodology of slow film. The parallels to Tarr are more obvious here. This is a sere, joyless film. It’s not depressing, really, aside from the initial premise. After all, it’s essentially a movie about people falling in love. But even when John and Ann are lit by candlelight, she’s trying innocent seductive tricks and he’s being all angsty about whether he should take her up on it, there is not a second in this movie where you look at these two characters and say “they’re the last two people alive” until Caleb shows up. (At which point, of course, you say “these are the last three people left alive.” Even if both John and Caleb say that there were other survivors in the places they left; never once did I believe any of those survivors were still alive.) Aside from that, not only does the movie’s theme, which is sporadically picked out on the old church organ by Ann, come straight out of the repertoire of Mihály Vig, Tarr’s longtime musical accompanist, but he even wolfed down Tarr’s film structure whole—a movie that is very slow for almost its entire length, but that contains a single scene of shocking violence. Unfortunately, Zobel veered off into the world of the Coen Brothers for that critical scene. And while it made sense to keep the violence offscreen in the climax of No Country for Old Men (after all, McCarthy wrote it that way for a reason—the death in question is not only inevitable, but by that time, so inconsequential to the movie’s actual plot that showing it would have been gratuitous), here it lends itself to a little too much ambiguity. If the scene just before the cut hadn’t been quite what it was, we might have known what happened. But here we are.
But for all that I see Tarr in every frame in this movie, the longer we stayed with these characters, the more Ozu I saw here. The gentleness the characters display even in what might be characterized as rougher scenes—the one I’m thinking of in particular occurs just after John discovers that Ann hasn’t touched the valley’s general store’s beer supply—is much more Ozu than Tarr, who specialized in rough characters. It wouldn’t be right to call even Zobel’s backwoods rubes “refined”, but their intelligence, manners, and problem-solving abilities would be far more at home in Floating Weeds than they would be in Werckmeister Harmonies. And because of that, I felt more empathy for them, which made me all the gladder that Zobel kept them as intelligent, sensitive, and overall gentle as he did.
This movie was a surprise indeed, and I hope, based on the box office from its limited release, it opens wider; this is a movie that deserves to be seen by far more people than currently have the chance to do so. ****