VOD film review: The Survivalist
Committed, physical performances8
Matthew Turner | On 10, Feb 2016Reading time: 2 mins
Director: Stephen Fingleton
Cast: Martin McCann, Mia Goth, Olwen Fouéré
Watch The Survivalist online in the UK: All 4 / BFI Player / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
This low-budget, post-apocalyptic thriller marks an extremely impressive debut for writer-director Stephen Fingleton, who expanded the film from his own 16-minute short, Magpie. Characterised by Fingleton’s strikingly economical story-telling, it’s a compelling and suspenseful three-hander that exerts a powerful grip.
The setting is established with an explanatory animated graph, indicating that the film is set in the not too distant future, where the population has rapidly declined as a result of depleted natural resources. Martin McCann stars as an unnamed young man who has lived alone in a cabin in the wilderness for the last seven years, tending his own limited crops, which he fertilises with the corpses of anyone who intrudes on his patch.
When he’s approached by a middle-aged woman (Olwen Fouéré) and her twenty-something daughter, Milja (Mia Goth), the man is initially hostile and defensive, but when the woman indicates that her daughter will sleep with him in return for food and lodging, loneliness gets the better of him and he acquiesces. Over time, the trio form an uneasy alliance, but as Milja grows quietly closer to the man, her mother begins to plot against him.
Fingleton’s direction is exceptional throughout, conveying substantial amounts of information with minimal dialogue and deploying some inventive camerawork to striking effect. Two scenes, in particular, stand out: the first, a Hitchcockian sequence where the focus is on the objects grasped within a character’s unseen hand in a two-person shot; and the second, where one character is stalking an attacker and the camera travels upwards to an overhead shot of where the assailant is hiding.
Fingleton coaxes committed, physical performances from his superb leads, who each do a huge amount with various looks and glances, generating significant suspense as the power dynamics subtly shift. The film also benefits greatly from the script’s decision to withhold any information about the world outside their isolated cabin; consequently, when an external threat does arise, it’s genuinely terrifying, accentuated by some accomplished sound design work.
On top of that, the film achieves an documentary-like degree of naturalism, aided both by cinematographer Damien Elliott’s use of natural light and the inspired decision to dispense with a musical score (the only musical notes heard throughout are a few half-hearted puffs of a mouth organ owned by one of the characters).
This would make a terrific double bill with the little-seen One Hundred Mornings, another Irish-made, low budget thriller. Like The Survivalist, it’s well worth seeking out; this is an engaging, suspenseful and visually striking film that marks out its director as a future talent to watch.
The Survivalist is available on All 4 until 17th February 2020.