Z for Zachariah: Down in the Valley, by David Bax
Director Craig Zobel (Compliance) knows how many post-apocalypse movies we’ve seen in recent years and so he doesn’t spend much time setting up backstory in his new Z for Zachariah, based on the novel by Robert C. O’Brien. After a few bleakly beautiful establishing shots of a decimated town (courtesy of cinematographer Tim Orr), we see a woman in a gas mask scavenging through the rubble, then carting her goods over the hill into the neighboring valley, where she is finally able to breathe free. Zobel may not completely steer clear of the apocalypse subgenre’s clichés (the woman, Ann, played by Margot Robbie, does appear to have kept up her leg-shaving regimen) but his overall economy in establishing time and place illuminates his true motivation. He’s not interested in telling us how the world of men was unmade but rather how it will be made again, by grace or by force.
A little more than a year has passed since whatever it was that rid the world of most of its population and Ann has spent almost all of that time alone, after both her parents and then her younger brother left the valley in search of help. Not long after we meet her, though, a stranger in a protective suit comes through the valley. Loomis (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a man of science and, while he doesn’t share Ann’s religious beliefs, she finds him to be a decent man. Soon, though, tension begins to creep into their uneasy idyll. Their fundamentally different outlooks manifest themselves in a simmering disagreement over whether or not to dismantle the chapel Ann’s father built in order to construct an electricity-generating mill. Then the wild card shows up. Chris Pine’s Caleb, a miner who survived the end times underground, claims to be a Christian just like Ann. But, because we see him only from the point of view of Ann and Loomis, whose de facto status quo his presence upsets, he brings with him a sinister and suspicious air. Once the surprise of the (no doubt coincidental) similarities to Fox’s The Last Man on Earth series is overcome, the story bears out all of its potential as an arena of power plays and hostilities held in reserve.
Z for Zachariah often crowds its human subjects with nature, which is in ascendance in this valley protected from radiation. It may be a pleasant summertime but the wind and grass and foliage hold dominion over the people and not the other way around. Zobel and Orr underline this by always being clear about where the light source is in any given scene. Be it harsh sunlight shooting in at an angle through a window or soft candlelight that causes shadows to bob like buoys, there’s a stark and unforgiving straightforwardness, an uncompromising cause and effect, to the look of the film. Still, the valley is a beautiful and verdant place, with tall grass that undulates lazily in the breeze. If Ann and Loomis are the new world’s Adam and Eve, this is their Eden.
The comparison to the book of Genesis is one the film encourages, with scenes like Loomis coming across a children’s book in Ann’s house of The ABCs of the Bible and giving a long look at the opening page that reads “A for Adam.” As the resident Christian, Ann may be more of an authority on Adam and Eve but it’s Loomis who first brings up the topic of procreation. With him, though, it’s not out of any spiritual duty but simple, cold pragmatism. That is the ostensible dichotomy between the two main leads, one a man of science, the other a woman of faith. But Zobel thankfully has no interest in being so dialectical. He’s telling a story about people, not categories of belief. Ann is in no way blindly pious. She’s a voracious reader and autodidact. And Loomis is far more governed by his emotions and prejudices than he would probably like to admit. This confusion between the spirit and the mind is illustrated with a touch of humor whenever it’s unclear to whom Ann is referring when she says “he.” It could always be He she’s talking about.
Of course, whether he or He, even Ann is aware that her world is governed by masculine ideals. Loomis’ “let’s get to work” approach to building their new life is exemplary of the way men often take charge in the interest of doing good without acknowledging that they are defining “good” by their own values. Even with the best of intentions, men like Loomis (and many of the rest of us) have an impulse to establish control and, once they’ve done so, to hold on to it however they can. Ann, meanwhile, falls without thinking into the role of peacemaker, quickly demurring, “It’s okay” whenever Loomis has frightened or mistreated her. Of course, it’s not okay but her impulse is to put Loomis’ at ease even when she’s not.
By stripping away almost any sign of modern culture, Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi asks us to consider whether these patterns (gendered, religious, etc.) reassert themselves because they are left over from the world that died or because they are innate. There’s something primal, after all, about Loomis’ quest to build a mill; he’s literally creating a wheel. But the closer he comes to completing his project, the less appealing it seems. Electricity could very well save their lives in the coming winter but the ugly, base parts of humanity that have crept into the valley along with its construction have turned hope to something more like dread. There’s been a regression in the name of progress. Paradise has been poisoned. Z for Zachariah deftly makes the argument that perhaps that is what has to happen for humans to thrive.