Reviews - 2016

The Survivalist (2016) ★★★

the_survivalist

You could be forgiven for not having heard of this film; the brain-child of Derry born writer-director Stephen Fingleton. It was made for under £1m, an absurdly small amount by today’s standards. Nevertheless, who says big budgets mean good film-making?

That’s a debate for another day.

Fingleton was BAFTA-nominated for this work in the Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer category and he also picked up a prize at the Tribeca Film Festival last April.
What we have here, is essentially, a parable about living in a post-civilised world and the cost of doing so. The price of food, shelter, love and the cost of survival. On first examination, the title refers to the lead character (Martin McCann) but as we become immersed in the film, it is soon obvious that this could refer to any one of three characters.

We open with a graphic. Blue and red lines representing human population and oil production, respectively. From here we meet McCann. He is silent, vigilant and armed with a shot gun. There is no dialogue for the first twenty minutes. Nor is there a score. Instead, Fingleton prefers to use nature’s soundtrack – birds, rain, trees, even breath – to help tell his story. This is a good decision. Too many films have too much dialogue and when it isn’t needed, such as this, it is wasteful. Perhaps this is even another reason the script is sparse; to illustrate mankind’s wasteful nature and mistakes; such is the essence of the picture. A wheezing harmonica (played by McCann) also gives the film a Western feel, and at times, it certainly has its moments of tension.

It is when Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) and Milja (Mia Goth) turn up offering seeds (and then, as a desperate last resort, sex), as payment for shelter in McCann’s woodland shack, that things start to get interesting. Milja offers to shave McCann, with a knife. But will she slit his throat or are her intentions honourable? Will Kathryn use the shovel to dig the dirt to harvest the vegetables they need for survival, or will she cave in her saviour’s skull?
These are interesting questions I found asking myself as I watched. Fingleton skillfully turns the power exchange on its head, several times during the 103 minutes running time (which feels a little long in all honesty),  and I stopped thinking of the three as victims very early on. All three are capable of doing what they have to in order to survive, and if that means killing, then so be it.

There is the odd flashback, which doesn’t necessarily ruin anything, but isn’t strictly required for a backstory. I appreciate why Fingleton chose to do so, but sometimes it is best to leave it to the audience to piece things together and reach their own conclusions.
This is hardly a criticism and would no doubt work for others, but just for me. Everything else is very much on the money and Mia Goth in particular is superb. Her performance suggests a maturity way beyond her 22 years.

Fingleton, like his McCann, treads dangerous ground. Some scenes will make you squirm and grimace, others will make you look away – I know I did – but it is handled with care and professionalism; something even experienced directors lack from time to time.

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