Z for Zachariah tells the tale of sensitive, self-reliant Ann, who lives with her dog, Bear, in an apparently idyllic mountain hamlet. She is otherwise utterly alone, the small town in the valley below devoid of any other living creature. It’s not clear what’s happened, but whatever it was, it was the end of everything.
We fall easily into step with her as she goes about tending her farm and hunting for dinner, and it’s obvious that despite recent events, she has built a real, functional life for herself.
She seems genuinely at peace in the rhythm of her life, yet as her routine winds down and she turns in for the night, the question lingers in the darkness… is it enough? As stable and lovely as it is, one wonders how long a person can go. It is, after all, not good for one to be alone…
Then one day, as surprisingly as Tom Hanks’ sail washed upon the beach, another arrives. And the balance begins to shift. Will it be for better or worse? How does one become two and maintain equilibrium? In a world in which perhaps only two exist, what does power even mean anymore, and if there is power to be had, what is it capable of doing?
Ann and her new companion, John, attempt to navigate these questions and as time unfolds, their companionship begins to mold the hamlet into a new shape. Until one day a third arrives… and the mobile begins to spin.
This one is Caleb. And where there are three, there most certainly is power to be claimed, and what it is capable of claiming.
Four years ago the great Terrence Malick offered an exquisite meditation on the ways of Nature and Grace, and on the outcomes where Nature – directive, linear, and sculpted – asserts its will upon a milieu nurtured by Grace, itself patient, timeless, and organic.
Here we experience the milieu of Ann, the faithful, as it embraces the energy of John, the scientist, and find comfort in the elegance with which the two begin to shape a new world that honors, reflects, and sustains them both.
Until Caleb arrives, and suddenly we don’t know whether the serpent has just crashed Adam and Eve’s party a-gain, or if the serpent had already corrupted the garden, and Adam has just arrived to save the day so humanity can get it right this time.
In introducing the third character of Caleb and aging Ann subtantially (thank goodness, or I would have been on my mama bear soapbox for the third time in as many weeks), the film veers far afield of its young adult source material. Instead, Z for Zachariah assumes as mature a stance as can be imagined, and forces every conceivable ethical exploration and confrontation.
Robbie, Ejiofor, and Pine deliver superior performances, and given the accolades [rightly] lavished upon Marion Cotillard last year for Two Days, One Night, there is no excusable reason for overlooking Robbie’s nuanced accomplishment here.
Director Craig Zobel has a flair for making us deeply grounded and disturbed in equal measure, and the talent serves him well here. I wasn’t able to finish his Compliance once, and despite my enduring intention to return, have found myself skirting it because of its intensity (it’s on On Demand as we speak, I guess I’ll put my big girl pants on and finish it). Not to beat the metaphor to death, but he really does craft a snake in the garden with great skill.
Even as it captures the imagination and the heart in an original context and rivets unto its last frame, Z for Zachariah sparks a remarkable array of echoes as it unfolds (unveils? unravels??).
It’s Terrence Malick does The Road … The Tree of Life meets In the Bedroom … a hearty argument (a plea, even) for Bandits … and the most unbearable love triangle since Take This Waltz. Additionally, unlike Mad Max: Fury Road et al in which people come completely unglued by the apocalypse, here it’s just good people dealing with a bad situation à la Seeking a Friend for the End of the World.
But wait… are they all “just good people”? What is “good people”? Where does standing for something mean steamrolling something else, and fighting for something become the beginning of killing it? Why does cooperation begin… and why does it die? And just what exactly is “rebuilding,” anyway?
Herein lies the film’s deepest power, as it sets into clear relief the myriad angles surrounding what situation warrants what kind of action, and confirms all that is eternal in the human spirit…