Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
September 2015

Z for Zachariah

Two's company, three's a garbage plot contrivance

'Z for Zachariah' abandons its most pressing concerns to tell a story told far too often

Z for Zachariah
Roadside Attractions
Director: Craig Zobel
Screenplay: Nissar Modi, based on the novel by Robert C. O'Brien
Starring: Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Chris Pine
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 35 minutes
Now playing in limited release and VOD
(out of four)

If I never see another genre movie that reduces its entire premise to a silly love triangle, it'll be too soon.

Nevermind that it's easy. Nevermind that it's a cliché. I'm sick of it because, in the context of all the unique possibilities a genre offers, a love triangle is so damn uninteresting.

Usually. Let's at least qualify the statement. It's usually uninteresting. But when it works, it's because it serves as part of a whole instead of the entire point. If it is the entire point, then frankly there is none. The most frustrating thing about Z for Zachariah - which is set some time after a nuclear apocalypse has wiped out most of the human race - is that, for a good portion of its runtime, it feels like it's consciously resisting that fate. After spending so much time with its two central characters, we can practically feel it fighting against the impulse to bring in a third party. Almost as if its creators - director Craig Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi - know it's a bad idea.

And then eventually the movie just can't help itself, and along comes Chris Pine to ruin everything. (This is not a knock on Chris Pine or his performance, but the very presence of his character in the first place.)

I've regularly made it known how little I care about a movie's fidelity to its source material - and how little relevance it has to the adaptation's effectiveness (read: zero) - but I must admit I was surprised to discover that Robert C. O'Brien's source novel apparently does not include such a love triangle. In fact, it does not include Chris Pine's character, Caleb, at all. That fact made me roll my eyes all over again, but then it made me curious as to why, exactly, Modi and/or Zobel decided to add it in. What did they feel was lacking in the material's cinematic prospects that required the addition of a love triangle - or any third character at all, for that matter? Was there such a lack of confidence in what the existing character dynamics had to offer? Or, perhaps the more likely option, was it just an easier (read: lazier) sell?

Whatever the case, it plays as a clumsy melodramatic angle that intrudes on a fitfully intriguing setup. It's not just one unsuccessful subplot - it's pretty much the entire focus of the film's back half. Prior to that, there's at least some solid potential in the burgeoning acquaintanceship of two people who weren't sure they'd ever see another human again - Ann Burden (Margot Robbie), a young woman surviving on her family's farm; and John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an engineer who happens upon her property and has to be nursed back to health after being exposed to radiation.

Survival - the use and rationing of their available resources, as well as figuring out what else they can do to get through the coming winter - is obviously at the forefront, but it is inevitable (and appropriate, in countless primal, human ways) that the physical nature of this accidental coupling will come to the forefront sooner or later. (And when it's two obscenely attractive movie stars involved, "sooner" is probably for the best.)

The story wobbles here and there - namely with the inclusion of John's drinking problem, which seems more like a cheap narrative time-waster than a character detail - but it only really falls apart once Caleb arrives and drives the whole film toward melodrama. The biggest problem is that the love triangle that ensues never feels like the result of carnal desire - or loneliness, or desperation for human connection, or anything that would seem remotely human. Instead it plays out as mannered and perfunctory. The second half of the film is almost entirely dramatic stares between the three characters, like a 45-minute Mexican standoff of smoldering.

The survival storyline continues to play out in the background as Ann, John and Caleb try to coexist, but it's completely secondary to the romantic plot device. The movie can argue all it wants about what themes it thinks it's exploring, but the fact is it spends the overwhelming majority of its attention on the contrived sexual tension, as if it has nothing better to do.

The unfortunate plot-centrism is exposed further by the film's pacing, which runs in direct conflict to its overall length (just over 90 minutes). Zobel doesn't allow emotional states of being to set in; rather he forces the issue, laying out the conflict through stilted dialogue and the aforementioned narrative contrivances. This is not a film told through images*, moods or emotions, but through poorly deployed plot devices.

* Yes, the film looks very pretty, but looking pretty is not the same thing as visual storytelling. Although I will give Zobel credit for one terrifically executed moment - a small gesture that caps off a static shot of Robbie's character sitting alone at a table late in the film. On its face, it's a cryptic moment; but in context, it provides a nice, graceful hint about the key moment occurring elsewhere.

The actors acquit themselves well - Ann's naiveté and vulnerability (which never crosses the line into weakness) are convincingly portrayed by Robbie (whose effortless screen presence does the rest). And Ejiofor's natural nobility, intelligence and sense of authority shines through a severely flawed (not to mention clumsily written) character. The strength of Pine's performance is in the hint of menace that bleeds into various moments - it's not always there, but it's just potent enough to make us question him, and what he actually wants, at all times.

But Z for Zachariah itself is much less fertile than the acting choices of its cast. Postapocalyptic futures and love triangles are each a dime a dozen at the movies; these ones bring frustratingly little to an already crowded table.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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