Who needs an expository text dump to establish your film’s world? The state of the future in THE SURVIVALIST is illustrated as simply as it could possibly be with two coloured lines representing oil production and the human population steadily climbing and inevitably falling. It immediately grounds the story, sets up what has been and gone and what is at stake, plus nobody has to explain the situation to you.
In the near-future human society has collapsed. In a world where all that matters is living another day, a lone survivalist (Martin McCann) comes across a mother and daughter (Olwen Fouere and Mia Goth) begging for shelter. But can he really trust anybody in such a harsh, dog-eat-dog world?
In this future the simple things are all that matter. Fire is more important than religion or love, as illustrated by the protagonist burning a bible and family pictures with only the slightest of hesitation. His distrust of everyone he meets is only natural. He has been alone for a long time and there is no room for compassion when living to see the next dawn hinges on keeping your meagre allotment-for-one well-tended and your shack in the woods as warm and dry as possible.
The main character doesn’t say anything in the first 20 minutes of the film so has to convey a lot with a look or a change in posture, a challenge the lean and unfussy Martin McCann is well up for. Even after he (we never learn his name) speaks he doesn’t say all that much – this is an inhospitable world full of cruel people and words would be wasted. There’s a great moment where he realises with a look of abject horror just how vulnerable he is and another where non-verbal human comfort after a harrowing night morphs seamlessly into grim acceptance of what is necessary for continued survival.
I don’t know where he gets fuel for his cigarette lighter or why he bothers to maintain designer stubble after the world has come to an end, but everything else in the film feels genuine and believable. Caveman regression meets modern bushcraft is the order of survival here and I was particularly taken with the demonstration of a primitive but ingenious way of sweating out a blood infection. There’s uncompromising, unglamorous and brutal imagery throughout and it can be a difficult watch, but it always keeps you riveted, or at least cruelly fascinated.
The finale is tense but brief – just three shots and a crossbow bolt fired in the final skirmish – and it rounds off such a measured film nicely. A hail of bullets or the sudden appearance of an army would feel out of place, and appropriately it just comes down to our tiny core group coming across a slightly larger and better-armed band. The minimal action the film has feels immediate, kinetic and nasty. Cinematographer Damien Elliott is equally comfortable with naturalistically capturing human behaviour documentary-style as he is with composing a beautiful sweeping crane arc to link hunter and hunted who are both hiding in tall grass.
Science fiction doesn’t have to be big, but it does have to be clever. All you need is a good idea (I say all like it’s easy…), a distinctive style and something to say about the world today and the world to come. A shed, some woodland in Northern Ireland and three talented main actors prove to be a winning combination in the hands of writer-director Stephen Fingleton. With Hollywood becoming ever more excessive and wasteful, it’s so refreshing to see what can be achieved with modest resources, and it’s my hope that The Survivalist does well enough to allow other talented filmmakers like Fingleton get their work out there. SSP