Z for Zachariah Takes a Thrilling, Intimate Approach to Dystopia

Troubled survivors Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor. Photo: Roadside Attractions

Face it, the Earth in its present form is surely doomed because of climate change or terrorists with nukes or unstoppable viruses or some combination of the above. Pick your poison, folks. But the flood of post-apocalyptic films doesn’t seem to be helping us change our ways. As Brad Bird’s messed-up but underestimated Tomorrowland argued, moviegoers have become positively turned on by visions of the planet’s demise. Culturally, we have learned to stop worrying and love the bomb.

Even if you’re sick of end-of-the-world films, though, you might make an exception for Z for Zachariah, a delicately calibrated, pointedly unsensational triangle drama anchored by Chiwetel Ejiofor in a frighteningly complex performance. Adapted by Nissar Modi from Robert C. O'Brien’s widely read YA novel (before we called them YA novels), director Craig Zobel’s movie is psychologically richer than its source. It’s set a long way from Cormac McCarthy’s dog-eat-dog road or The Walking Dead’s zombie-swamped infrastructure.

That setting is a southern valley that was mysteriously spared a civilization-killing toxic fallout. Left by her preacher dad and family, who’ve gone off to help save bodies and souls, a pious young woman, Ann Burden (Margot Robbie), goes it alone. Her name tells you what she can bear. She plows her fields and milks her still-healthy cows. She drapes herself in plastic, takes books from the deserted town library, and goes home to scrub the lethal dust off herself. The rhythms change when she and her dog encounter a weirdo in what looks like a tinfoil spacesuit pulling a cart, but before she can warn him not to he plunges ecstatically into a tainted water hole. He’s Mr. Loomis (Ejiofor), a research engineer who left his government bunker. “What I wanted from life wasn’t there,” he explains, after Ann nurses him back from the point of death. “I was looking for a place like this.”

The resultant sexual tension is thick, though its impetus comes from an unexpected direction — the girl, an obvious virgin who has never even had alcohol. Whether she’s attracted to Mr. Loomis (she calls him “Mr. Loomis”) or she feels God’s exhortation to procreate isn’t clear — and maybe that’s the point. She doesn’t know. I never stopped thinking Robbie was miscast — she looks like a magazine cover girl, and if that’s lookist so be it — but she works hard and pulls off the role. She’s especially fine at expressing two emotions at once.

Ejiofor can express about ten at once. If there was any doubt before, Z for Zachariah clinches it: He’s a major actor, deeper and subtler than all but a handful of leading men — perhaps the equal of any. The play of emotion in his face and his voice is remarkable. He wants Ann — but he’s conscious, even in this post-apocalyptic context, that she’s a teenage white girl and he’s an older black man. He’s worried that if things between them change, the careful balance that defines their lives will be upended. And he thinks he has all the time in the world to sort things out. It’s not as if there’s competition for her.

Then suddenly there is. Chris Pine — also improbably gorgeous — shows up as a miner named Caleb, on his way to a rumored compound of survivors. (It might or might not exist.) Caleb is much younger, much shallower, and much more sexualized than Mr. Loomis (whom he also calls, like a good southern boy, “Mr. Loomis”). What’s unclear is whether he plans to move in swiftly on Ann, by force if necessary. Maybe those manners are deceptive. Pine does well and keeps you guessing.

The triangle is new — the novel had only two characters, and there was no racial element. What’s added deepens the material. Zobel (he made Compliance) has a gift for showing the tiny shifts in power, the microbeats. The movie is a slow go, much of its running time spent on building stuff, creating a design for living. But there’s a hell of a sting in its tail. Although the movie stops at the book’s two-thirds mark, the abrupt ending is a killer. It creeped me out and then laid me out. For days I couldn’t get out of my head the way it wreaked havoc on my sympathies.

Perhaps outside the world Robert C. O’Brien created, Cormac McCarthy’s survivors are killing one another, and zombie cannibals are marauding. But what happens on that little farm in Z for Zachariah is more than enough to trouble your sleep.