Playing Nice: Z for Zachariah, by Sarah Brinks
Thank you for reading “Playing Nice” a series of articles that examines group dynamics in film.
**This article will contain spoilers. I strongly recommend you watch the film first and then read the article if you care about spoilers.** Z for Zachariah probably has the smallest cast I would consider writing one of these articles about. There are only 3 actors in Z for Zachariah: Ann played by Margot Robbie, John played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Caleb played by Chris Pine. A nuclear event has taken place, leaving only a small valley in the mountains of the American south safe from radiation. Ann is living alone on her family farm after her father and brother left her to search for survivors. Carving her life out of the land with her bare hands Ann has been alone for a long time until one day she sees man in a big silver suit pulling a wagon. He has a Geiger counter with him and when he realizes the valley is safe he sheds his suit and swims in a local watering hole. Ann gets him out of the irradiated water but he gets very sick with radiation poisoning. When he recovers they become close and start to build a life together even planning on how to restore electricity. One day a second man appears on their land and they let him stay and help them build a waterwheel to get electricity. At the end of the world, when so few people have survived basic human wants and needs mean that tensions and emotion run high as they try to survive.
I think the biggest question the film asks is, “Whom do you trust when there is no one to trust?” It is literally the end of the world. They are a tiny pocket of survivors trying to keep themselves alive, but they are still human. They need contact and understanding and they also have physical needs. Ann had been alone a long time so when John appears she prays to God to keep him alive. She wants someone to talk to and someone to help ease the burden of running the farm alone. He helps her get her tractor back up and running so they can tend the fields easier and faster. He also comes up with an idea that they could build a waterwheel and get electricity to run the freezers in the winter. John is a good man to have with you at the end of the world as he is an engineer but he is also human and therefore flawed. He gets drunk one day and when Ann tries to help him he yells in her face and pins her to a wall. He regrets his actions and apologizes and they are able to move on. Then comes Caleb who steals their food and makes jokes about betting rights to Ann in a shooting competition. Ann is naïve but not stupid. But she is in a particularly difficult position of needing to trust someone but not really knowing if she can trust either man.
Caleb is the character we know the least about. In a lot of ways he is a master manipulator. He spends time (days, maybe weeks) watching Ann and John before he actually meets them. We see him watching Ann play the organ in the church and he was stealing food from her chicken coops and game traps. He knows which buttons to push with both Ann and John. With Ann he wins her over by playing up his faith in God over John’s atheism. Caleb manipulates John by playing up his affection towards Ann in front of him. He also uses John’s desire to build the water wheel to drive a wedge between Ann and John. It is hard for us as an audience to fully trust Caleb when we know he know more than he tells Ann and John. Ann mentions that she doesn’t like that he stole from them but when there are only three people left alive you have to take some leaps.
Humanity’s need for sex and sexual contact cannot be ignored while discussing this film. It is not plainly stated that Ann is a virgin but it is implied by her clumsy attempt to seduce John. She get drunk and makes a move on him. He is receptive but he tells her that it will change things and that they have time to figure it out. When Caleb shows up and he is a handsome man closer to her age it hard to deny the chemistry between them. John sees it and becomes jealous and hurt. He tells Ann that she can “figure it out with Caleb”, but she is loyal to John and doesn’t know why he is saying those things. Through his jealousy John is finally able to admit that he is in love with Ann but it is possibly too little and too late. John gets drunk again and passes out and Ann and Caleb sleep together. Caleb is able to manipulate the situation again by praying on Ann’s obvious need for physical affection.
The ending of the film is left up to the viewer’s interpretation. You as a viewer have to decide what type of person John and Caleb both are. Is John the kind of man who would let his competition fall to his death out of jealousy or is he the kind of man who would save Caleb’s life even though he knew it would hurt to see him and Ann together? Is Caleb the kind of man who would abandon the only two people he knew in the world because he finally succeeded in sleeping with Ann? Admittedly, the opinion I had when I first saw the film is different from my opinion having re-watched it a number of times.
Whom do you trust when there is no one to trust? This is a difficult question to answer when considering a film like Z for Zachariah. Some people always lean toward believing everyone (like Ann) but that is a potentially naïve perspective, other people (like John) are harder to win their trust. If it came down to you and one or two other people left to survive at the end of the world would you give your trust or hold back? Most importantly, would you play nice?