Remnants (2012)

First published by Little White Lies

“She was scared, ok – she was scared of blast burn and radiation poisoning, and she was dying,” Hunter (J.L. Thomason) reassures Jonathan (Ross Britz) after the latter has just been bitten on the hand by a crazed woman who burst into their bunker. “She’s a refugee of this war, she’s not a movie zombie, ok?”

Post-apocalypic scenarios admit all kinds of genre materials, but Peter Engert’s stripped-down Remnants (aka Aftermath) takes pains to delineate as much what it is not as what it actually is. For although featuring relentless, largely mute assailants, it is, as Hunter suggests, not a zombie movie. Although its cast includes Edward Furlong, he has grown up not to be the post-nuclear saviour of humanity promised in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), but rather a wife-beating redneck named Brad. And despite, like Southland Tales, opening with the nuking of Texan cities (expressly including Abilene) and even featuring the repeated line (heard on a shortwave radio), “This is the way the world ends”, Remnants will not pursue the postmodern political satire or LA neo-noir of Richard Kelly’s film, but will rather stay in the Texan hinterlands, and remain deadly serious to its bitter end. It even begins with an impressionistic sequence of grim images from its ending, before skipping back a month to just before the nuclear strikes, so that from the very outset we are denied any prospect of a happy outcome.

Backpacking through the countryside, medical student Hunter is listening to radio reports of rapidly escalating strife in the Middle East, when the bombs fall on the horizon, instantly blinding a young boy near Hunter with their flashing blast. With the boy Satchel (Kennon Kepper) and his elder sister Jennifer (Jessie Rusu) in tow, Hunter commandeers an abandoned jeep, hurriedly throws some looted provisions together, and searches desperately for shelter, picking up Elizabeth (Monica Keena) – and getting shot – on the way. Intertitles that ominously measure in hours the time from their first exposure make it clear that this is a race against irradiation – and by the time, later that evening, the four have secured themselves in a farmhouse cellar with Jonathan, his diabetic granduncle Wendell (Tody Bernard), as well as neighbour Brad and his heavily pregnant wife Angie (Christine Kelly), an off-the-scale Geiger reading taken inside their bunker reveals that they are already far too late, their fate sealed right in there with them.

Remnants allows certain predictable (which is to say realistic) scenes to play out within the cellar’s claustrophobic confines – the scramble to make radio contact with others and find out what the government (if there still is one) is doing, the infighting and power struggles, the efforts to keep would-be intruders out – but once Jonathan’s spiritual friend Rob (Andre Royo) has arrived with bleak news from outside, Peter Engert’s film comes into focus as less a story of survival than a bare-bones morality drama on the different ways in which the end might be faced.

For where some of these nine neo-troglodytes opt to keep themselves alive at any cost, others want to go down with a fight, others desire (or resign themselves) to take their own lives, and the rest accept the inevitable with humility and grace – but in one way or another, death is certainly coming, so that these characters define themselves by their commitment to different paths that are all ultimately equal in their futility. The bloody last stand constituting the film’s climax is as utterly pointless as it is heroic, and the triumphalism of the film’s final line (“We won!”) catches emptily in the throat of its speaker. Yet with nowhere left to go, and its few still surviving characters reduced to a zombie-like state of debility, this film about the end ends in a clearer version of its opening scene, with images of such austere beauty and sadness as to have the raw impact of an epiphany. Rarely has existential horror been so moving.

© Anton Bitel