The Survivalist (18) | Close-Up Film Review


Dir. Stephen Fingleton, UK (esp. NI), 2015, 105 mins

Cast: Martin McCann, Mia Goth, Olwen Fouéré

Never has a line graph been so dramatic as in the title sequence of The Survivalist. The two crawling worm-lines plot the rates of oil production and world population. The red and blue lines soar through the industrial revolution into modern times. However, as time references fall away and as the growth seems to endlessly boom, the ominous tension takes its first grip upon the audience. Suddenly both lines plummet and plummet, and plummet.

Following this, it would not be surprising to see abandoned cities and skeletal concrete jungles. Instead In this hypothetical-future psycholgical thriller, Stephen Fingleton plunges the audience into an actual jungle, or forest, of hyperreal human relationships. The mysterious socio-economic disaster is left entirely in the background – leaving the imagination to piece together what may have happened. Even better, it doesn’t matter. The beauty of the drama that unfolds is that the universe presented is one restricted to the three billed actors, in one location, in one intense story about need, power and gender.

The narrative develops with genuine twists and gasps that would be spoiled with a detailed synopsis but it’s safe to say that the set up is simple. Martin McCann (known simply, although not referenced directly in the film, as ‘Survivalist’) begins the film in torrential rain, dragging a body out of a creek before burying it. The ensuing extended, yet absorbing silence sees him creating and working on a makeshift mini-farm. After this period absent of dialogue – Survivalist is alone, so who would he talk to – enters Kathryn (Olwen Fouéré) and Milja (Mia Goth), a mother and daughter seeking to trade seeds for some of his crop. Alone for seven years in this humanity-barren, yet nature-rich environment, Survivalist’s best friend is his shotgun and the following sequence of the film takes place at the wrong-end of his barrel for Milja and Kathryn.

The static dynamism between these three is quietly electrifying. It is a thoroughly engaging exploration of the anatomy of trust in a world where sex, violence and food are the pillars of power and interdependence teeters and shifts precariously.

The screenplay from Fingleton goes much of the way to immersing the viewer in such a realistic vision of such a disturbing future. It’s lean, with every word carefully measured; a quality quickly understandable for these people for whom one wrong word could spell disaster. However, equally important is the soundscape of The Survivalist. Every breath, every snapping twig and (among many examples) the metallic snap of the shotgun barrel replace the traditional concept of a film soundtrack. Survivalist often smells his surroundings to sense danger and you can hear the air move through him. Fingleton has said that he wanted to “invite a more engaged response where morally challenging scenes are presented without a score to colour-code their intention”. It’s one of the techniques that helps conjure genuine suspense. An oddly naked feeling emerges because as cinematic audience members, the whole idea of movies is that they lead you, either telling you what you should be feeling or foreshadowing how you should feel next. It is almost an antidote to John Williams, who knew we needed one. The difference is refreshingly off-putting.

It’s a very demanding film for the actors. Survivalist fills the screen for, at a very moderate estimate, 80 minutes of the action. McCann is a presence, he must be and it’s excellent casting. The audience sees a lot of flesh throughout, therefore his muscular, but slightly gaunt build is essential for the realism of his situation. His unusual complex chemistry with Goth is fascinating. Irish artistic stalwart Olwen Fouéré is a relatively understated yet calculating third-wheel to their interactions. Her input is vital however, let it just be said; rabbit traps and mushrooms. Hair colour is not usually a ‘highlight’ but her almost-white blonde hair adds a human-based ethereal quality to a world that revolves around an elemental, almost spiritually simple way of living.

It’s not necessary to know or care how cleverly this film is crafted because watching it is so engrossing. Nonetheless, it is very intelligent and that enhances the life of the film beyond the cinema swing-door. There is the continuation of the story beyond the ending to consider, all the clues to the past you might have spotted and so many points to collectively ‘did you see the…’ at.


By George Meixner