Saturday 20 February 2016

The Survivalist (UK 2015: Dir Stephen Fingleton)

Stephen Fingleton's sci-fi film - his first feature - is that rare thing, a movie which communicates predominantly visually rather than via exposition, yet manages to convey important ideas about humanity and our ability to cope and adapt in the face of catastrophe.

Martin McCann plays the unnamed Survivalist, all skin, bones and animal wariness, who has carved out an existence in the years following an unspecified disaster (although we know from the clever opening titles shown by way of a two line graph that this catastrophe has been triggered by a sudden fall in oil production mixed with over population). He lives in a woodland hut and has become largely self sufficient, even down to manufacturing a form of oil for his lamps. He is ruthless in despatching anyone who threatens his solitude, burying their bodies for compost - he is also incredibly lonely, masturbating over photographs belonging to those he has killed.

Into this Robinson Crusoe-like existence appear Kathryn and her young daughter Milja, looking for food and shelter. Kathryn offers seeds and later Milja herself in exchange for sustenance and a roof over their head. The Survivalist's initial reticence gradually thaws as he enjoys regular sex with the young girl, but the three remain wary of each other - any one of them is capable of violence it seems - and lead a largely silent existence.

The backdrop to the formation of this uneasy family is the forest itself, verdant and tranquil yet containing hidden dangers in the shape of potential (and actual) assailants. The woodland is timeless and constant - as we watch it we're almost convinced that nothing has happened until we see the pitiful figures foraging within it. The rather staggering realisation that humanity has reduced itself to this existence (and in a later scene, a much worse one) in only a few short years since the catastrophe has taken place, as the eye is comforted by the green depths of the forest, is chilling.

As the film progresses rivalries develop, and the relative calm of the Survivalist's life is shattered - in fact we're now not sure to whom the film's title refers. In an environment of want and meagre resources, survival becomes paramount, and the film ends on a note which offers a possibility of hope and also a re-appraisal of what we've just witnessed.

The Survivalist is perhaps a more brutal and honest version of the 1975 BBC TV series Survivors - it's surely no coincidence that the titles are similar. Yet while that television drama often recalled the more cosy self sufficiency tactics of The Good Life, The Survivalist behaves rather like an adult version of Lord of the Flies. This is a strong, assured debut from Stephen Fingleton, with top notch acting turns from McCann, Olwen Fouere as Kathryn and the wraith like Mia Goth as Milja (who was so impressive in Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac: Vol. 2). Filmed in natural light and with no soundtrack, The Survivalist feels honest and bold - very, very impressive stuff.

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