I may have read Z for Zachariah when I was in high school. I can’t remember if I did, but it’s a great title you never forget once you’ve seen it.
Then I heard last year that they were making a film adaptation starring Australia’s own Margot Robbie, Chris Pine, and Oscar-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (let’s face it, should be Oscar-winner, bloody McConaughey), and thought it would be one of 2015’s big blockbusters. Instead, the film kind of disappeared off the radar and got a limited release late last month.
My initial reaction is that the film must have sucked balls, but as it turns out, Z for Zachariah is actually quite a compelling post-apocalyptic drama that was probably always fated to appeal to a small segment of the market.
From what I understand, the first half or so of the film follows the book quite closely. Margot Robbie plays Ann, a religious young woman who survives what appears to have been a nuclear holocaust due to the fortunate positioning of her family’s farm. Then one day a man, John Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor), appears and changes everything.
The second half of the film is said to deviate from Robert C. O’Brien’s 1974 novel in that it introduces a new character played by Chris Pine. As a result the story takes a completely different direction and becomes dominated by a different set of themes.
It’s understandable why the film has been so low-key, as it plays out at a pace that will be challenging to a lot of audiences. It’s one of those contemplative dramas, where the interactions are more subtle and invites viewers to read between the lines and draw their own conclusions. At its core, this is a film about basic, fundamental human emotions and instincts, and how feelings can be magnified to dangerous levels in a confined setting. I’m sure everyone has a relatable experience where you spend a lot of time with a person or a small group of people and develop strong feelings toward them, but when you look back upon it later on or from a step back you wonder why it ever had such a powerful effect on you.
I found the slow speed of the film to be fine — there is a constant tension that continues to grow beneath the surface that made me uneasy and curious as to what would happen next. It’s quite impressive how director Craig Zobel — who last directed the superb 2012 film Compliance (my review here), which is also about the nature of human interactions — manages to create such an effective drama using this very simple story with so few characters.
Chiwetel Ejifor is really awesome in this, as you would expect, and he stands out among the trio of actors. Both Pine and Robbie are very good too (though I noticed Robbie’s Aussie accent leaking through a few times), which is a big reason why the film works despite its pace and occasional uneven tone.
Admittedly, Z for Zachariah is not for everyone, but people who enjoy slow-burning dramas that explore the many layers of human nature might find it a surprisingly captivating experience.
3.5 stars out of 5