There are so many pivot points in Z for Zachariah that it becomes hard to nail down exactly what director Craig Zobel intended for it. At one point, it seems decidedly about gender politics, at another about race relations, and eventually it boiled down to themes of suspicion, greed and jealousy. Spliced with a domineering amount of ambiguity. All this from a cast of three. To call it thematically rich may be overly generous - maybe thematically crowded would hit the nail on the head more - but nonetheless, it strives for something thoughtful and great, even when it comes up just short.
This post-apocalypse drama, adapted from Robert C. O'Brien's sci-fi novel, opens on a suited-up Margo Robbie picking through the remains of battered store fronts like a Walking Dead alum, loading up a wheelbarrow full of new goodies. Robbie ventures uphill into a picturesque valley where she disrobes in the sunshine and shortly after comes across another suited stranger. The fact that Robbie Ann's immediately arms herself and is ready to put up a fight gives you more than enough detail on the current state of human relations.
Beneath suit number two is Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a scientist roaming the scorched earth armed with a radioactivity detector. When the mechanized beeps finally quiet, he de-suits and bursts into blissful tears. In a state of intoxicating excitement, he lunges into a nearby waterfall and bathes himself in its wake, unknowingly infecting himself with the very radiation he has done so well to avoid. It's the first sign of unreasonable character choices - why would such a cautious man not run his little radio-gun over this water?? - but it's not too hard to dismiss as a momentary lapse of judgement. He falls into a vomity stupor and Ann takes him back to her farm to nurse him back to health.
As he heals, Loomis and Ann strike up an unorthodox relationship - one that's at first mostly born of necessity but eventually blooms into something richer, more nuanced but ultimately shadowed with tragedy. When another infected wanderer (Chris Pine) arrives on Ann's farm, a love triangle evolves and begins to dominate the each and every thought of our three players.
Any film with only three cast members puts a lot of stock in the worth of its actors and with Z for Zachariah we're three for three in terms of mighty performances. Robbie shows a truly tender side through her soft Southern drawl. A dirt-caked Pine continues to impress in his outside-Hollywood efforts. Meanwhile Ejiofor has the most complexity and heavy lifting to deal with of the trio and is more than up to the weighty task. As we've come to expect, he's great and that is the result of Zobel backing off and letting the cast deliver their oomph.
Zobel's last effort, Compliance, dealt with the idea of manipulation. He illustrated just how easy it is to control others, using the true story of the Bullitt County "prank call scam" to alarming result. Z for Zachariah mildly touches on similar landmarks but sets his focus on a more nuanced rationing of control. Rather than the overt dominance presented in Compliance, Z is more interested in the idea of controlling situations without imposing oneself as a enactor of change. It's a very skilled ask but Zobel is able to illicit most of the response he seems to be going for. In the very least, it makes for some interesting scene work and some great moments of character exchange. But as the film progresses, a fog of ambiguity sets in, forcing us to make rational decisions based on the actions of irrational people.
As it comes to a close, Z fails to ever truly erupt. Rather, it offers a major turn sans clarity. That ambiguity is Zobel's conceit though I'm not convinced it's a great one. The preeminent issue with his practice is that it results in a film that isn't clearly worth digging more into because there might not be much more too it. When I'm going down the rabbit hole, I need to know that there's something on the other side.