First published in Sight & Sound, March 2016
Synopsis: Northern Ireland, the future. Fossil fuels have run out, and society has collapsed. The Survivalist lives alone in a woodland cabin with a subsistence garden, burying not only memories of his girlfriend and brother, but also the odd intruder caught in his animal traps. One morning, grey-haired Kathryn and her daughter Milja arrive. Kathryn offers Milja to the Survivalist in exchange for board and lodging, and the three form an uneasy collective. Milja secretly steals the Survivalist’s shotgun shells. Kathryn is about to kill the Survivalist when Milja is snatched by an intruder. In a standoff (and without shells) the Survivalist is shot, but stabs the snatcher. Milja persuades Kathryn that the Survivalist is “useful”, and they tend him back to health.
A raiding party destroys the crop. With food running low, Milja tries to carry out an abortion before the others realise she is pregnant. Kathryn instructs Milja to kill the Survivalist so that the two of them have enough to last the winter. Milja poisons Kathryn instead. The Survivalist finishes Kathryn off, at her own request. The four armed raiders return when Milja and the Survivalist are outside. Milja sneaks in through the roof and recovers the precious seed collection. As they are chased, the Survivalist reveals his late brother’s name to Milja, and creates a diversion so that Milja can escape. He is captured and killed, and the cabin burnt down.
Still pregnant, Milja wanders into a large, well-guarded farming community where she can see mothers and children.
Review: “Surely you could spare something,” says Kathryn (Olwen Fouéré), stumbling, starved, into a small woodland farm with her teenaged daughter Milja (Mia Goth). “There’s more than enough.”
“That’s what they all thought,” replies the farm’s sole resident (Martin McGann), never named in the film and credited only as the titular ‘Survivalist’. He is not referring just to the other intruders who have ended up dead and buried after stepping into the traps that he has set about the property, but also more generally to a society that, without enough to live on, had suddenly collapsed several years earlier. This cataclysmic event is depicted at the film’s beginning as a piece of plain animation: a red line that corresponds to the world’s population and a blue line that figures oil production are both seen to rise in parallel, until the latter suddenly plummets, followed quickly by the former. This simple portrayal of the end times – neither a spectacular bang nor a subdued whimper – may in part have been necessitated by budgetary considerations, but it is also starkly effective in its minimalist understatement, reducing the human race, and its unravelling, to a mere statistical graphic.
The rest of Stephen Fingleton’s film is a similar return to basics, scaling down human life to the hard, Darwinian business of survival. Apart from the odd incursion of raiders, or of the protagonist’s haunting memories, this is essentially a three-hander – a chamber piece played out with cabin-fever intensity (and lots of high-angle interiors to maximise the sense of claustrophobia) between a loner who craves company as much as food, a mother who will do anything to preserve her daughter and herself, and a young woman who sees a different future. Yet while post-apocalyptic cinema is often sparse and intimate, it is also typically arid – think the dry desertscapes of the Mad Max franchise, or the desaturated dead zones of John Hillcoat’s The Road (2009) – whereas in Fingleton’s vision of the end times, humanity’s loss has been the rest of nature’s gain. The dominant colour here, beyond the confines of the Survivalist’s tin-and-timber shack, is not sandy ochre or ashen grey, but a brilliant, fertile green. Still, in this tale of severe shortage, the sylvan setting, though belonging to a near future, might as well be mediÃ¦val – and the niceties of moral conduct have also take a backward, backwoods turn.
“You’re getting sentimental,” complains Kathryn in the face of Milja’s reluctance simply to murder their host when his guard is down. “You‘re getting old,” is Milja’s purely pragmatic response, “He was the one who saved me.” Indeed Fingleton eschews sentimentality in his stripped-down screenplay, ascribing any act that might be construed as altruism to a cold utilitarian calculus. The Survivalist and Milja may come to love each other (who knows?), but their relationship is presented entirely in terms of sexual commerce and the optimisation of livelihood – and, far from being a victim or an object, Milja plays this game as well as, if not better than, the other two. The trio will eventually form something of a family unit, working and eating alongside one another, but as soon as their subsistence crop has been destroyed and once again there are not enough resources to go around, the apocalypse recurs in miniature, with even the strong mother-daughter bond that has kept Kathryn and Milja together for so long proving negotiable.
Taking place in the same world that featured in Fingleton’s short film Magpie (2014), the taut drama of The Survivalist stages questions about the meaning of survival, be it individual, genetic or cultural. Even as the protagonist, when we first meet him, is slowly working through the pages of a Bible and a collection of personal photographs as fuel for the fireplace, memories of the past keep resurfacing, as do Biblical lessons about sacrifice. If the survivalist is living a lonely, empty existence that can have no long-term future, the arrival of Kathryn and her daughter allows him, however briefly, to create a sustainable if precarious society – while Milja’s unplanned (and at first unwanted) pregnancy offers both new anxieties, and new hope. Ultimately the viewer must unpick what has been lost forever, and what has endured.
In a moment of crisis, the survivalist, himself anonymous, reveals to Milja his dead brother’s name, to be preserved in memory, perhaps even in a descendant. Judging by this spare but confident debut, Fingleton’s name is also one to remember.