Director Craig Zobel’s previous movie, Compliance, was based on actual events in which a prank caller persuaded employees at a fast food restaurant to strip search and rape a young girl. Zobel’s take on the events wasn’t lurid. Instead, he told a story about human weakness that focused not on the victim, but on the woman who let it happen, who was equal parts perpetrator and victim. So Zobel’s take on Z for Zachariah is no surprise. The book it’s adapted from is a post-apocalyptic power play between a teenage girl and a domineering scientist for control of an unspoiled valley in a radioactive wasteland. But this movie isn’t that.
Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi propose a different kind of relationship between an awkward young girl and the scientist who stumbles across her farm. They propose a love story. And, like Compliance, it is ultimately about human weakness. But since we’re in a post-apocalypse, the stakes for human weakness are so much higher. When the last man on Earth does something cruel or petty, so goes all of mankind. It’s heartbreaking to see Chiwetel Ejiofor’s coolly competent character in a controlled burn from fatherly engineer/savior of humanity to resentful drunk to jealous boyfriend to his hands clasped in prayer, penance, or entreaty in the final scene. The actor guides his character along its arc with astonishing conviction. In one scene, he whispers. He probably doesn’t need to. But he does. It’s a startling but effective choice for how it carries power, urgency, need, frustration. What a fantastic actor. Can we just give him an Oscar, already? It’s only a matter of time.
And while we’re at it, let’s go ahead and confirm what we suspected after Margot Robbie held her own opposite Leonardo DiCaprio’s flashy excess in Wolf of Wall Street: she is no mere Aussie ingenue. In Z for Zachariah, she positively glows as an awkward girl unaware how beautiful she is. Her earth-toned hair is wispy, her skin is lightly brushed with acne and sunburn, she claps an unflattering baseball cap on top of her head, and she affects a husky West Virginia twang. But like the valley she cultivates, she is radiant with life and simple beauty. Her scenes here are sexier than anything Wolf of Wall Street accomplished with a short pink dress. Those were the 90s. This is womankind.
And since there are no zombies to serve as a convenient metaphor, Z for Zachariah can’t play out like the usual power fantasy in which you get to shoot guns out the window of your cherry red Shelby GT500 Mustang on the weed-kissed streets of Manhattan. Zobel’s post-apocalypse is the battleground for a subdued power play between religion and science, love and happiness, youth and wisdom, survival and morality, progress and remembrance. It deftly touches these themes without ponderously unpacking them and holding them up to the camera. They are fleeting subtext. They are the answer to how a church organ ends up in a dark workshop at the back of a barn. Z for Zachariah is a quietly devastating portrait of the apocalypse, not because of what we’ve lost, but because of what we still are.
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