Nate von Zumwalt
The last time Craig Zobel premiered a film at the Sundance Film Festival, he wasn’t sure he’d make it out of the theater. After debuting his film Compliance in 2012, the film’s post-screening Q&A session was reduced to a shouting match as a combative audience member lobbed criticisms at the director’s intentions with the film. Earlier this year during Zobel’s second time around in Park City, the drama stayed on the screen.
In January Craig Zobel premiered his stunning new feature Z For Zachariah, a film that paces with the pensive, slow-drip thrill that defined his prior work. The film is based on the Robert C. Obrien book of the same name and centers exclusively on Ann, John, and Caleb, whom we meet in that order, and played by Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine respectively. Following a mysterious global disaster that spares only a small lush valley, Ann has been left to live alone off her family’s farmland. She is ostensibly the last person alive in this post-apocalyptic world, until she meets John Loomis, a scientist who was in a government bunker when the disaster hit. As Ann nurses John back to health after being exposed to radiation, the two begin to develop a working symbiosis – cultivating the land and sourcing fuel from a local gas station, among other tasks – with a subtext of romance. Just as their relationship begins to thrive in both arenas, our third survivor stumbles onto the scene. Caleb is a coalminer who quickly threatens to derail the fledgling relationship after moving in with Ann and John. As much as Caleb proves to be a handy sidekick for John’s ambitious projects, his eye for and intentions with Ann are undeniable.
John and Caleb treat the dysfunction as their stage, constantly one-upping the other in a battle for affection. But as these clashes of virility – occasionally marked with sly, smart humor and passive aggression – play out, a confused and vulnerable Ann is caught in the middle, and we’re left to witness the regression of man back to its most primitive form. Ultimately, the three are forced to grapple with what life at the end of the world means, and what they’re willing to do to preserve it.
Following the January screening at Sundance, Zobel took the stage with his stellar trio of a cast, who delved into their personal approaches to the characters. “Structurally I’m clearly the antagonist – or should be,” said Pine, hinting at the interloper role that his character plays. “I was most interested in playing this morally ambiguous guy. You’re not quite sure about his motivations or intentions – he seems to be a bit off.”
Robbie expounded on the challenge of inhabiting a character whose fortitude was often compromised by her nurturing tendencies. “What I struggled with was wanting to play a strong female character, but at the same time she was extremely insecure and a bit of a pushover and a people-pleaser,” she said. “That kind of weakened her in the dynamic with the guys. She wasn’t always the innocent one. She always tried to have good intentions, and maybe didn’t execute them.”
Finally, Ejiofor, whose role straddled a number of emotional highs and lows, shared with the audience what attracted him to John’s character. “It kind of just takes you on this epic journey with these three people telling the truth about what their experiences are. I felt the characters really represented that. They weren’t archetypes at all; they were just all different sort of shades.”
Ejiofor’s take on the film may ring most true, as Z For Zachariah typifies the notion that the beauty is in the journey, not the destination. So is the case with Zobel’s tightly crafted drama, another stellar addition to the promising young director’s budding oeuvre.
Z for Zachariah opens in theaters and on demand Friday, August 28. Click here to find a screening.