By filtering the enormity of global catastrophe through the prism of individual survival, writer/director Stephen Fingleton’s remarkable debut effectively imagines the complete breakdown of society into an intense, intimate and brutally realistic character study.
His nameless protagonist (Martin McCann) is no gung-ho hero, rather a man who spends his days scratching out the most basic kind of existence in a Northern Irish forest. When strangers Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) and Milja (Mia Goth) happen upon his isolated farmstead, an deal is struck for the three of them to live together. It’s an uneasy truce of necessity that grows increasingly complicated when his relationship between Milja begins to deepen.
Fingleton’s film is the antithesis of post-apocalyptic porn; there are no fractured urban ruins, no epic journeys through desolate landscapes. His focus is firmly on the dynamics of this trio and, more specifically, on the nature of gender politics and sexual desire when societal rules have been stripped away. Forced to live in such a confined space, with little food and nothing in the way of luxury, the interplay between man and women – and, more interestingly, between the two women themselves – is one of base instinct, driven by paranoia, need and ever-shifting loyalties. Any one of them, it’s clear, will do whatever it takes to be the eponymous survivalist.
With its sparsity of dialogue and complete absence of music – sound designer Jamie Roden instead paints a sumptuous aural landscape with sounds from the natural forest environment, both calming and threatening – it’s left to the performances to convey the depths of Fingleton’s vision. Given the provocative themes it’s exploring, and the explicit nudity (both male and female), this narrative could easily have succumbed to cliche and, worse, exploitation, but the exceptional cast shoulder both its dramatic weight and emotional heart.
Beautifully shot by cinematographer Damien Elliott, whose tight framing replicates the pinhole of existence to which human life has shrunk, The Survivalist is a stunning, thought-provoking film that, despite its bleak focus, has a surprisingly uplifting message about the power of human connection.
UK release: February 12, 2016
This review was originally published by The List