As wonderful as the spectacle in George Miller’s vision of the post-apocalypse may be, in reality, the end of the world would probably look less like Mad Max: Fury Road and more like The Survivalist. Set in the near future, when overpopulation has led to widespread starvation and the breakdown of society, director Stephen Fingleton’s spare, striking debut feature takes a minimalist approach to the post-apocalyptic thriller. The film—which is coming to American theaters two years after its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival and a year after its release in its native U.K.—shares similar settings and themes with Krisha director Trey Edward Shults’ upcoming It Comes At Night. The difference here is in the direction: Shults uses the tension between a small band of survivors to create nail-biting suspense, while Fingleton concentrates on quiet character moments to explore themes of loyalty and betrayal.
Martin McCann stars as the title character, a nameless thirtysomething man who has been living in an isolated cabin in the northern Irish countryside for the past seven years. In the interim, he’s settled into a comfortable, solitary routine, tending to plants in his garden and setting traps for any animals—or humans—who wander too close to his homestead. This lonely peace is shattered by the arrival of two women, tough-minded Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) and her meek daughter, Milja (Mia Goth). After first offering up jewelry, then seeds, the women eventually offer Milja’s body in exchange for food and a place to sleep, beginning an extremely uneasy alliance that’s cemented when the Survivalist saves Milja from a stranger who attacks her as she bathes in a stream.
Fingleton deliberately leaves certain details of chronology and geography vague, allowing for the insertion of marauding outsiders whenever the plot needs to be jolted back into motion. But the more interesting dynamics are taking place inside the cabin, where Kathryn secretly pressures the reluctant Milja to betray the Survivalist so they can take over his land. Without giving away too much, that plan leads to an engaging, but not wholly unexpected twist that casts the title of the film in a different light.
It takes a while to get there, though: The first 15 minutes or so simply take us through the Survivalist’s daily routine, from waking up in the morning to longingly stroking a faded photograph of a lost lover at night. Further adding to the verisimilitude is Fingleton’s frank approach to nudity and bodily fluids, from maggots in a festering wound to the jiggling flesh of a naked corpse being kicked by a hiking boot. For those with the stomach for such imagery and the patience for slow, naturalistic pacing, The Survivalist rewards with thoughtful cinematography—one fluid shot that effectively shifts the balance of power in a scene is especially noteworthy—and character development. But viewers looking for zombie attacks or thrilling chase scenes should go elsewhere.