Sunday 14 February 2016

Wild thing: "The Survivalist"

The Survivalist is one of those rare genre pieces that works intently and effectively within its box, while also thinking some distance beyond it. That debutant writer-director Stephen Fingleton is attempting something at least a little different can be understood as early as his opening sequence, a nervy ballet between the lines on a graph - plotting the planet's human population against oil production - that comes eventually to speculate on the calamity that may well befall the former when the latter begins to tail off. Our understanding of that calamity is only deepened throughout a largely wordless first act, which describes the daily routine of a shaven-headed loner (Martin McCann) reduced to farming the small scrap of land around a decrepit shack in some after-the-fall wilderness, and what happens when a mother and her teenage daughter (Olwen Fouéré and Mia Goth) emerge from the woods one afternoon, and attempt to initiate a dialogue.

From the nature of this dialogue, we can ascertain that all niceties have long gone with the wind; instead, a do-or-die bluntness prevails. "Don't come inside her," says the mother, entrusting her offspring to this loner after he takes the pair of them in - advice offered in wisdom, given the consequences of bringing another hungry mouth into these most straitened of circumstances. Yet such transparency of expression doesn't easily translate into trust: our hero keeps his shotgun in hand as the girl begins to shave him, and a dozen other flinches and flickers punch up the impact the base-level insecurity of this world has had upon the characters' relationships. Unusually for a low-budget Britflick, the quandary those characters find themselves in will be as much philosophical as physical: whether or not to put up the shutters and go it alone, or branch out and take the risks any relationship entails. (I'm coming round to the idea The Survivalist may be an inspired choice of release for the Valentine's weekend.)

In couching his film so, Fingleton takes a basic dramatic set-up - three people (and a handful of stalk-on ne'er-do-wells) pottering around the same shed, The Good Life gone bad - and expands upon it exponentially. The show-don't-tell minimalism of the screenplay is a major boon, allowing the performers - and the viewer's imagination - to fill in whatever backstory is necessary. McCann - emerging from under a drastic Levellers haircut as a more interesting Rupert Friend - displays a wiry tautness that speaks of months of rationing and is of a piece with the film entire, while the women pull through as far more than damsels in distress: the silver-haired Fouéré climbing trees and stripping down in a manner that suggests she's unlikely to book in for a cosy stay at the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel any time soon, while the apparently waif-like Goth - fleetingly glimpsed amid von Trier's Nymphomaniac - displays hidden reserves of strength and practicality in a scene of self-induced abortion sensitive viewers should perhaps be warned about.

The whole film, indeed, is no place for the faint of heart: we should praise Fingleton for making so many uncompromising choices on his first time out behind the camera, so many of them being exactly the plausible ones for characters mired in this end-of-days scenario. Of particular note: the pared-back sound - no thundering Apocalyptoid score here - which allows us to appreciate anew the effectiveness of silence when deployed as a weapon. In the course of The Survivalist, you can hear not just the existential tension mounting in a room and the footsteps approaching from outside, but every accelerated heartbeat, every last, desperate gasp. A wildly promising debut.

The Survivalist is now playing in selected cinemas. 

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