Z for Zachariah
Directed by Craig Zobel
Opens August 28
The phrase “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” is the worst kind of cowardly resignation, a stubborn refusal to engage with modern art. Old-fashioned cinema gets made all the time, and anyone looking for an example could do worse than the work of Craig Zobel. Zobel has a sensibility right out of the early 1970s, making films whose plots are excuses to watch human egos grind against each other. The premise of his latest film, Z for Zachariah, is a kind of a science fiction warhorse—a man and a woman appear to be the last people on earth, until a third man shows up—seen before in underrated oddball gems like 1959’s The World, The Flesh and The Devil or the excellent 80s film The Quiet Earth. In one sense Zobel is updating the story for 2015, with a frank and mature discussion of the tension between his three characters, but in another he’s making it for the economically conscious audiences of the Nixon-Ford years. Not through self-conscious nostalgia, but by dramatizing a retro conflict between labour and idleness, meticulously detailing the construction of an infrastructure project.
Ann (Margot Robbie) has been living on her family’s farm by herself since the world went quiet a few years ago. Radiation has coated the land (the landscape looks to be the anthracite country in Pennsylvania seen in Barbara Loden’s Wanda, so some kind of Three Mile Island-style accident seems the logical culprit), except for the valley where she lives with nothing but a dog for company. Enter Mr. Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiorfor), who survived in a home-made radiation suit. He’s impressed by the way Ann’s kept the farm going since the death of everyone in her family, and starts trying to repay her with plans for a renewable energy source, and impress upon her that he’d be up for trying to “start over,” if you catch his drift. That’s when Caleb (Chris Pine) shows up and throws a burly monkeywrench in the works, although only to a point. He’s all for helping build the hydroelectric mill to power the farm, but the look in his striking blue eyes says that what he really wants is an opportunity to get closer to Ann. Considering how little Loomis and Ann have in common (a black atheist scientist vs. a white, religious farmer), it shouldn’t be that hard for strapping, god-fearing Caleb to muscle in.
More than becoming the obtuse angle in a love triangle, Caleb’s defining trait (read: flaw) is that, though capable of becoming a functioning member of the mini society, he’s not interested in progress for a common good. His willingness to hop to work is a mask for his unwillingness to think about anyone else’s future. Zobel’s films prize a socialist, working-class optimism. In his excellent debut, Great World of Sound, a record company stooge slowly lets his morality get in the way of doing his job effectively, because it involves cashing in on the lower class’ dreams. In his follow-up, Compliance, the idea of “authority” is cleaned and gutted as a fast food manager obeys the voice of a man she believes is a cop telling her to degrade a teenaged employee. Z for Zachariah isn’t the dystopian fable its premise hints it might be. In fact the end of the world barely factors into the third act shift towards the construction project. It’s a film about laborers reckoning with a set of axiomatic ironies in a claustrophobic social atmosphere in order to make physical progress.
Zobel’s made a film that wouldn’t be out of place on a bill with unpretentious early 70s films like Five Easy Pieces, Martin or Sometimes A Great Notion, movies that show what a life spent working with your hands will do to your relationships, especially with people from different walks of life. The search for purpose through honest work used to be a fairly common theme in major films. Films as diverse as Days of Heaven and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre each have something to say about the vanishing prosperity of small businesses and independent agriculture production. All the aforementioned touchstones predicted not just the Reagan administration’s shameful attitude towards the working class, but the massive step American film took away from the realities of working class homes. The things separating Ann, Loomis and Caleb (religion, work ethic, sex, upbringing, mannerism, race) won’t end up mattering half as much as the need to move forward. As the three keep getting in each other’s way, yet return each morning to keep working, a quote from Sometimes A Great Notion jumps to mind. Henry Fonda’s character, a sexagenarian logger who’s only just recovered from a grave injury, is asked why he wants to get back to work when he knows it could kill him: “To work and eat and sleep and screw and drink and to keep on goin’—that’s all there is. The whole ball of wax.”