Friday, February 05, 2016

The Survivalist - extreme behaviour in extreme times (QFT until 18 February)

The opening titles of The Survivalist graphically set up the background to the fundamental changes that have devastatingly changed society: the collision of population growth and plummeting oil production. It’s a world that has had no option but to embrace vegan diets (large animals have been hunted to extinction), heat from wood rather than electricity, and survival of the fittest.

Martin McCann plays the titular Survivalist who has been living in a wooden shack in a clearing in a Northern Ireland forest for seven years. The forest supplies fuel, the stove provides warmth and a place to cook. He’s planted lines of crops in front of his hovel, though his choice of organic fertilizer is unusual (and frankly an unforgettable cinematic image).

Tin cans hang from trees as early warning signals of approaching foes. Everyone who visits is assumed to be an enemy and his paranoia is turned all the way up to eleven. It’s a case of shoot first ask later.

Mother and daughter Kathryn (Olwen Fouéré) and Milja (Mia Goth) approach the house one day. They’ve walked up from Monaghan and seek refuge. Desperate for shelter, after the initial rebuff the mother offers her daughter to the Survivalist for sex in return for lodging. They pair stay and help cultivate the land. However, they’re not the only people in the forest, and when their food supply is disrupted and diminished, drastic decisions have to be made.

It’s a shocking scenario. How extreme would circumstances have to be for a mother to prostitute her daughter? (Not so far fetched in today’s world when families are faced with brutal conflict and the high risk of death.) There’s no question that the mother might offer herself rather than her teenage daughter. In what kind of a world are welcome and hospitality exchanged for sexual depravity?

After a screening in the QFT, someone quipped “it’s all about the seed”. And that neatly sums up the post-event world that writer and director Stephen Fingleton has created. Power is wielded by those with something to offer. And the only resources left are the basic ones. It’s clear that Fingleton has done his research and made the environment as realistic as possible: nature is blooming while people are dying.

The Survivalist is not a zombie apocalypse film. Nor is it a filmic version of BBC’s Survivors with a community fighting back against a virulent strain of influenza. Fingleton’s world is much more isolationist and sophisticated.

There is no musical score, unless you count a few notes on a harmonica. Instead there’s the sound of breathing and the wind rustling through the forest added in post-production. No 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound: the majority of the film uses a mono feed through the front centre speaker to heighten the audience’s sense of sound. There’s not much dialogue: even when the shack’s occupancy increases, there’s not that much to talk about. But despite the stripped down sound design, Jamie Roden’s post-production mix is as beautiful as Damien Elliott’s camerawork.

Everyone looks weary. The cast’s emaciated bodies reflect the low-carb diet of mushrooms. Martin McCann looks like he’s been living in the forest. (While the cast did forgo showers during the filming, they didn’t go to quite the lengths of The Revenant cast and crew.) Olwen Fouéré’s long white witch-like hair belies a woman who is losing grip on her own destiny.

Trust is in short supply. Loyalties are complex. Affection may be a cypher for survival. The decision to take a life or save a life is more likely to be based on selfish reasoning than the urge to prolong life.

Ultimately the moniker ‘The Survivalist’ may belong to the young and virile who can make harsh choices and take opportunities when they arise. An elongated crane shot changes the perspective of the power play between the three characters, signalling the pivot point in the film’s narrative. Mia Goth depicts a young woman who is more in control that she lets others believe and can emotionally detach to boost her lifespan. Perhaps this is more like “Little Red Riding Hood in reverse” as the film’s director has suggested?

The Survivalist (18) is not for the fainthearted. But it’s a story and a set of circumstances that continues to haunt my imagination long after the credits rolled and the lights came up. 105 minutes of original cinema from a Northern Ireland writer and director who has been nominated for a the Outstanding Debut BAFTA. If he continues to question what we take for granted, his future films will be worth viewing too.

Queen’s Film Theatre is exclusively screening The Survivalist from Friday 5 February, a week ahead of its UK cinema and on-demand release.

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