Survival’s a bitch. Especially without food. The Survivalist‘s is a world of starvation. Between puffs on a harmonica and longing gazes at a photograph of a mysterious woman, our nameless protagonist, a wild-eyed, wilder-haired feral cat of a farmer, struggles to make do in a land where human populations have flamed out, spiraling after the crash of oil production, leaving in their wake a scourge of scavengers desperate for food and willing to go any lengths to get it.
In the land of famine, the farmer is king. Martin McCann’s scruffy woodland hermit is handy with a hoe, yielding enough to satiate his scrawny frame but unwilling to share with those looking for a hand out or, worse yet, violent invaders. Armed with a shotgun and a meager two shells, he sets up impromptu traps at his deep wood encampment to safeguard his crop from hands helping themselves. Clever in a redneck MacGyver manner, he pees in tin cans and boils it to make lantern fuel. At one point, he’s caught jerking off into flower pots… for god knows what purpose. Perhaps we need to consult a farmer as to the ecological impact semen has on crop yield, or maybe the guy just has a thing for flora, but either way, it’s a strange moment and not the last glimpse of a member.
Our guy’s sexual prospects perk up with the arrival of Kathryn (Olwen Fourere), a white-haired maternal figure with questionable motives, and Milja (a quite good Mia Goth), a seemingly delicate maid with pointedly seductive doe eyes. The man shoos them off at shotgun’s edge but ultimately falls victim to their pleas. Kathryn offers seeds in exchange for a taste of vittles. “Surely you can spare something,” she bargains, “you have more than enough.” His answer remains no until another exchanged is proposed. Subtly, Milja’s supple figure is offered up as payment. As far as the man wielding the weapon is concerned, it’s probably the last pair of perky boobs the world over. When he agrees, Kathryn offers one more request, “Please don’t cum in her.”
Rich with bodily functions, The Survivalist has a fast supply of ickiness – including a deeply uncomfortable to watch self-administered abortion edited over a bunny absconding deeper into the forest – that helps define Stephen Fingleton’s dark apocalyptic vision. The picture is dirty and quiet, with characters rarely wasting a word. The Survivalist’s aesthetics remain of a homeless chic quality with the titular survivalist’s hair a ratty fashion statement of the flyover meth county variety. One zip-up windbreaker from being of the frontier days, the simplicity of the film’s production design speaks to its impressive economy as every prop – and lack thereof – speaks to the desolate nature of Fingleton’s pitted world and highlights the intelligent zeal of his Chekhovian storytelling.
Strip the zombies from The Walking Dead and you have something akin to Fingleton’s world – a place of desperate foraging and deep-seated distrust. Minimalist without ever being boring, The Survivalist, like its protagonist, is an economical beast. Fingleton orchestrates tension masterfully, keeping us on the razor’s edge throughout and often just with the simplest of tools. The three central cast members offer balanced, nuanced work with Mia Goth adding another impressively eerie note to her mounting resume as the intriguing and complex Milja. When foreign forces and infighting challenge the newly forged marriage of convenience, The Survivalist offers quiet intensity in spades. There’s little showy to the work, from the direction to the performances and production design, but with all elements taken in concert, The Survivalist is a spartan exercise in backwoods tension that succeeds by virtue of its elegant simplicity rather than in spite of it.
CONCLUSION: This grimy, low-pitched post-apocalyptic dramatic-thriller possesses audiences with its disquieting portrayal of a world made desolate and humanity ugly even though its restraint may wear on audience members aching for quick thrills.