It seems like a lifetime ago I saw Z For Zachariah, yet it’s been a mere eight months since its Sundance debut. Out of the five dozen films I saw that festival it’s the one that rose to the top for me – I adored its conceit, it’s beautifully simple premise that’s poetically drawn out. I responded well to its subtle moments of character performed by a top notch cast. I adored its beautiful take on a lush post-apocalyptic word, a kind of Eden that gives the film its allegorical heft.
Other critics were less kind to the film, finding it more straightforward than it really is. This for me is a prime film for re-investigation, one that maybe freed from the cauldron of festival screenings has a chance to find its audience. I fear that its dumping in the doldrums of summer will do it few favours, yet for those willing to give it a shot it remains one of the most rewarding and accomplished films I’ve seen all year.
The premise is both beautiful and simple – a woman is the only one left in the world, until she’s not. She (Margot Robbie) meets a man (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and they connect as humans do. And then a third (Chris Pine) shows up and things get complicated indeed.
Since the film’s release a number of post-textual events have transpired – one, the Fox TV show Last Man On Earth aired and showed how this kind of conceit can quickly turn into risible farce. Second, Margot Robbie (known prior to Z for her bombshell role in Wolf of Wall Street) starred alongside Will Smith in Focus, and also has been generating loads of press for role as Harley Quinn in Suicide Squad. When I saw Z, I couldn’t find the performance connect between Wolf and this – she’s exceptional in the film, completely believable delving into the character’s many complexities. It retroactively made me appreciate Scorsese’s film even more, as her performance as Leo’s lover was so on point that it almost felt like it wasn’t acting, that Marty had just secured someone to play herself. Z made me stand up and realize just what a talent Ms. Robbie has, and that certainly helped foster a great deal of my pleasure for the work.
Chris Pine, meanwhile, has been pigeonholed a bit, particularly with his dashing role in Into the Woods. His smug and silly take in the Wet Hot American Summer TV show also shows him to be charismatic pretty boy with a big smile. Yet in Z he uses that charm to stunning effect, making for a truly deep and complex connect between the two other characters.
And then there’s Chiwetel – back in January there was still a buzz from his 12 Years A Slave Oscar nom from the year before. We’re all looking forward to The Martian, but this was his big festival stage arrival after the plaudits, and I think some wanted to pick holes in what he does on screen here. I think those critics completely missed the point – he’s as exceptional here as usual, the same kind of subtle and remarkably effective acting that’s made the likes of Children of Men timeless classics.
Many gave praise to director Craig Zobel’s previous film Compliance, and wanted something dark and dangerous with his followup. Those open to seeing it recognize this is an even more accomplished work, but, again, I think the beautiful way that he toys with archetypes was lost on some that simply never gave it a chance.
Z for Zachariah feels both timeless and completely contemporary, a stunning work that demands a far wider audience than it’s likely to receive. Out of hundreds of films released this year this is among the best, an often breathtaking examination of human frailty told within the context of a fable-like tale. It’s a stunning film that deserves to be more than just a footnote or a cult film loved by a select few – give it a chance, go in with open eyes and experience one of this year’s cinematic treasures.