THE SURVIVALIST [London Film Festival 2015]

PrintE-mail Written by Peter Turner

Opening with a simple red line that charts the exponential population growth that occurred around the time oil production began, The Survivalist offers a bleak new world after the collapse of civilisation when the population has plummeted back down to sustainable levels again. We don't get to see much of what this post-apocalyptic future is like, but we see enough to learn that human nature hasn't changed a bit since the dawn of man.

Martin McCann plays an isolated loner who has settled in the woods and is scraping a living by setting traps to catch anyone who comes near his tiny farm. Here he is growing enough food to survive, and burning pages of the bible to keep his bare hut warm. With no dialogue for a decent chunk of the film, the titular protagonist goes through his daily rituals, concentrating only on the basics of life; warmth, keeping clean and making food. It is only when a starving mother and daughter arrive and ask for food that his solitary existence is shattered.

Even with the character count up to a whopping three, dialogue is still very limited. Words, like everything else in this world, are never wasted. Conversations are simple transactions, as the daughter provides sex in return for shelter. Contact is clearly something to be feared, and though the exchanges between the women and the man grow less tense as time goes on, any other character that emerges from the woods is clearly a threat. In this cruel world, even conversation and simple smiles are in woefully short supply, but eventually demands become questions and there is hope for a peaceful co-existence.

The danger of the wilderness is ever present, but first-time feature writer/director Stephen Fingleton finds some beauty in his single location. The natural surroundings and interactions between the humans and birds and rabbits reminds exactly of who the real threat is in the woods. Faced with desperate choices, it is people who continually commit the most savage actions.

Sadly, though Martin McCann's survivalist is no perfect hero, he is represented as resourceful and brave while the women get a much rougher ride. At first they are helpless starving victims, then mother becomes pimp to the daughter and then it seems they may become manipulative witches using sex to seduce and destroy their male host. When the daughter Mia washes away her period blood, she is then snatched and taken away to become damsel in distress. There seems to be an almost biblical sense of sin, sex and death that permeates much of the film, and even any sense of sisterhood between the women is lacking by the end.

Despite these shortcomings in the female characters in the script, The Survivalist is brilliantly bare bones filmmaking. Using natural light, no score, mostly a single location and minimal dialogue, Fingleton keeps things fraught with tension throughout. The performances from Martin McCann, Mia Goth and Olwen Fouere are all perfect with not a single smile cracked between them. The shifting allegiances are expertly played out, with a pervasive sense of bleakness that makes this a similar story to The Road except with these characters staying put, this is more like the road to nowhere.

If you suspect the collapse of the human population is imminent, stock up on seeds and shotgun shells and lock up your daughters before immersing yourself in the brutal world of The Survivalist; a stark, but brilliant debut.


Expected Rating: 7 out of 10

Actual Rating:

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