Tuesday, September 1, 2015
Z for Zachariah: A Garden of Eden in a Land of the Dead
Not that this lush and expressive film is remotely lacking in ghoulish imagery or toxic atmosphere. From its opening moments, which follow a hooded figure clad in Hazmat gear prowling through a barren landscape, Z for Zachariah silently communicates the calamity that has befallen the planet. That figure is Ann (Margot Robbie, an Australian giving her best shot at a Southern accent), the lone remaining denizen of this unhappy valley that's located somewhere in Southern Appalachia. Ann's hair initially appears lank and her face is caked with grime, but this isn't one of those cheesy uglification jobs, and her natural luminescence quickly shines through because, you know, Margot Robbie. One day, this solitary looker spies John Loomis (a terrific Chiwetel Ejiofor), a civil engineer wandering a dusty road in a comically oversized "safe suit". He futzes around with a Geiger counter and then, upon confirming that the air is uncontaminated, strips off his suit and lets out a bellow of euphoria, tears streaming down his face; with that, in less than 30 seconds and without uttering a single syllable, Ejiofor makes his character's agony and ecstasy known. Indeed, John is so excited by having finally found a safe environment that he stupidly wades into a nearby pond without first testing the water, which is, Ann frantically informs him, radioactive.
Too late! But not really. John, an erstwhile scientist, has medicine with him, and Ann takes him to her nearby farmhouse, where she gradually nurses him back to health. From there, Z for Zachariah, which was scripted by Nissar Modi (adapting Robert C. O'Brien's novel), proceeds on levels both pragmatic and romantic. Ann and John appear to be the last two people on Earth, and the film examines their nuts-and-bolts attempt to survive the coming winter. John, a rather brilliant fellow, devises a plan to construct a waterwheel to generate electricity for Ann's farmhouse. That requires wood, but when John suggests dismantling the small chapel on Ann's farm, she hesitates to destroy a house of God. You might expect such sentimentalism to infuriate a pragmatist like John, but gratifyingly, he doesn't dismiss Ann's concerns with scorn, and overall, Z for Zachariah (which takes its title from a series of Bible-based children's books) is blessedly nonjudgmental about religious beliefs.
Of course, there may be another, more selfish factor motivating John's respect for Ann's wishes, which is where the film's second level kicks in. Ann and John initially seem unlikely lovers—she is an insulated preacher's daughter, he a worldly engineer—but their attraction slowly blooms, backed by the recognition that there is, after all, an entire planet to repopulate. Their courtship is bumpy, however, with their mutual attraction undercut by fear and confusion. Robbie, continuing to up her profile following The Wolf of Wall Street and Focus, does some of her best work during these tentative moments; when Ann murmurs "What did I do wrong?" after John gently rejects a hesitant advance, you want to rush to her and hug her while she weeps. But John assures her that they have plenty of time, and it seems certain that they will fortify their bonds over the coming winter, with no one who could possibly disturb them.
Then Caleb shows up.
What follows is both predictable and rather surprising. John and Caleb make obvious romantic rivals for Ann (perhaps too obvious), and the three each form distinctive legs in one of cinema's most rickety love triangles. Yet their competition unfolds curiously, with Caleb always appearing respectful—he refers to John as "Mr. Loomis"—and John constantly reassessing his value in Ann's life. John is not blind to the chemistry between Ann and Caleb, but he is impotent to defuse it, and in one agonizing scene, he chokingly encourages Ann to pursue her feelings for his foil. "Y'all be white people together," he sputters through bile, devastating Ann with his acidity but also wounding her with his assumptions. It's an especially painful scene that confirms Ejiofor's wondrous dexterity as an actor, but it's also illustrative of this fragile three-headed commune, one where every member feels differently about the other two, but none can express their true feelings.
"handsomely mounted", but Zobel gracefully blends the movie's luxuriant aesthetic with its sober emotional palette, resulting in a restrained production that is also boomingly operatic.
Z for Zachariah may strain credulity at times, especially in its final act, which is powerful, provocative, and just a little bit silly. It seems somewhat ludicrous that an event as gargantuan as the apocalypse can be reduced to something as infantile as a dick-measuring contest. But perhaps that's the point: Love will endure, along with the messes that accompany it. This movie pays tribute, with clarity and force, to the obdurate strength of human emotion. Sure, the rest of civilization may have been extinguished, but the desires of these three confused, flawed wayfarers burn on. All they want to do is ignite a small measure of happiness in their hearts. That may not sound like much, but in the cracked, dystopian universe of Z for Zachariah, it is, quite literally, the only thing in the world.