This low-key science fiction film is set in a near, post-apocalyptic future where, as the title suggests, the human race must endure a constant struggle for survival. An opening title sequence informs us – inventively, using only a graph – that catastrophe struck in the not-too distant past, and global population figures plummeted in tandem with a drop-off in oil production. As such there’s only a handful of characters in Stephen Fingleton’s debut film, which seems to imply that somewhere along the line our cities became either too dangerous, or uninhabitable for some other reason. It is mostly set in verdant woodland, where nature has thrived as a result of humanity’s decline; though if the bright green grass, plants and leaves seen on screen suggest a fervent ecosystem in the countryside, it soon becomes clear that food is scarce and packets of seeds are the most valuable item that can be traded.
The narrative follows an unnamed main character (Martin McCann), who lives alone and grows vegetables outside his wooden shack, where he is constantly under threat from human raiders and must keep a shotgun close at all times. The first act is spent illustrating the character’s hand-to-mouth existence, and is almost wordless, though his silent routine of cooking, washing, keeping a fire going (he’s burning his last remaining books and photographs) is fascinating to watch. Fingleton’s intelligent and occasionally-gruesome picture doesn’t expand much on its premise, and most of the action takes place in and around the man’s makeshift house, but The Survivalist is gripping precisely because of its narrow scope. The man’s world changes when two women (one older, one younger, played by Olwen Fouere and Mia Goth respectively) arrive on his doorstep asking for food. (Their offering of trinkets that were once valuable but now largely redundant is scoffed at.) Initially the man doesn’t trust the two women, which is understandable, given that society has seemingly devolved into a kill-or-be-killed anarchy and we see the older woman casting auspicious glances at the shotgun, as if she is waiting for the right moment to strike. Yet this intense but economical chamber piece moves forward simply by examining the way that relationships and allegiances between the three main characters gradually change over a short period of time.
This is a debut feature of some confidence, relying on the ability of its actors to explain through actions and (few) words how this society operates, and the central trio manage adeptly and convince in their respective roles. It may be lo-fi and low-key, as these post-apocalyptic stories go – there’s no soundtrack, little dialogue and the characters do not stray far from the hut – but it’s interesting to see one in which nature has taken over (rather than the usual scorched earth landscapes that show nature in regression, as seen in Mad Max, The Road, I Am Legend and so on). Yet there’s no suggestion here that mankind has returned to the ‘Garden of Eden’ or that food is abundant. Quite the opposite, in fact: humanity seems to be grimly hanging on, almost as if people are fighting against the natural world as much as they are fighting each other. Fingleton and DP Damien Ellliott cleverly create a sense of claustrophobia, with the poky shack featuring heavily, though outside of the house the walls of trees and plants further hem the characters in. When the action briefly spills into a meadow – and this section includes the film’s standout shot, as the camera pans over swaying grass to reveal the hiding place of a raider – or when we finally see more open space at the end, you actually feel a sense of relief. The final scene brings to mind Alfonso Cuarón‘s Children Of Men, and The Survivalist ends on a similarly brief optimistic note, but otherwise there’s little cheer in this intense, fascinating drama. Impressive.
Directed by: Stephen Fingleton.
Written by: Stephen Fingleton.
Starring: Martin McCann, Olwen Fouere, Mia Goth.
Cinematography: Damien Elliott.
Editing: Mark Towns.
Running Time: 99 minutes.