Craig Zobel’s Z for Zachariah promises a prolonged two-hander between a religious country girl and a man of science, whose belief systems will be tested not only by their proximity to each other and the possibility of death, but the justifications they make for actions only they’re capable of judging. Because in the wake of a mysterious nuclear war, in a rustic corner of America surreally flanked by mountains straight out of Middle-earth, they may very well be the last man and woman on the planet. Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) survived here by fishing from the uncontaminated source of water that assured the land’s salvation and hunting wild animals with a shotgun and makeshift booby traps. Winter, she says, almost froze her to death. Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), meanwhile, emerged from an underground research lab, seemingly chased by more than just the demons of his cabin fever, and soon after taking off his safe-suit near Ann’s property, they commit to surviving hand in hand, if not exactly as lovers. They have plenty of time, he argues, to figure out their feelings for one another.
This adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s famous posthumous novel is initially notable for its almost willful circumvention of dread, which would be fascinating if it didn’t call so much attention to the schematic contrivance of the protagonists’ dilemma. The screenplay is shorn of the very nuances into Ann and Loomis’s lives up to this point that might have reverberated profoundly onto their present actions, and one senses the actors’ struggles to play against hazy characterizations. In Ejiofor’s overwrought approximation of drunkenness, one initially gathers that Loomis is attempting to chase away the nightmares of having lived so many days and nights by his lonesome. Later, he’ll admit to an act of violence that connects him to Ann, but the script does the opposite of giving shape to whatever sense of guilt he may feel by cavalierly sweeping his actions under the rug—a sign, above all else, of the film’s disinterest in exploring the thorny mess of these people’s lives. This evasion also means that, when Ann continues to plow the field even after Loomis persistently asks her to call it a day, there’s no sense of whether this sudden display of authoritarianism was shaped by his time in the research lab or if it’s always been a fundamental aspect of his persona.
One does, though, grasp the outlines of the film’s dramaturgy, which hinges largely on Loomis’s desire to use the wood from the church that Ann’s father built as a means of building a windmill so as to allow contaminated creek water to power a busted generator and bring electricity to the farm. It’s the only wood they can use, he claims, but her nostalgia, and hope that one day there may be need for a place of worship if more people join them, is such that she puts up a hangdog-ish fight. The stage, then, is efficiently set for an allegory about spiritual resurrection that, conventional as it may be, is occasionally enlivened by the heartache that underscores how the characters draw lines in the sand, especially by Ann when she tells Loomis to not disregard her feelings. After all, she “lived through this too.”
But then, a third person, Caleb (Chris Pine), enters the picture and suddenly Z for Zachariah squanders the promise of its scrutiny into how people recalibrate their sense of morality in times of crisis. Tensions suddenly bubble to the surface only to just as quickly dissipate, its perspectives never to be tied back to the horrors of the post-apocalyptic milieu, which becomes almost completely beside the point once Loomis stops worrying about whatever danger Caleb may pose to his plans for survival and begins to see him only as a threat to his manhood. In the end, the filmmakers have simply warped O’Brien’s novel into a love triangle and how one man’s wounded ego may or may not lead him toward vengeance. The emasculation that drives the plot in the end will ultimately take Loomis to church, and it’s delivered with a casual understanding that his fall would not have been possible if it wasn’t for a woman’s supposed indiscretions, which is at least in keeping with the spirit of the Genesis story that’s so clearly and risibly inspired the scenario.