Think post-apocalyptic and the mind wanders to the teen franchises of late: ruined cities of stylized CGI, high-tech government conspiracies, and actors that look beaten but still chic. The Survivalist, from director Stephen Fingleton, does not fall into this category. Yes, it’s post-apocalyptic, but it’s a raw and a more realistic version of how the world would look in civilisation’s wake. We meet the titular character, the “survivalist” deep in the woods of (we’re assuming) Northern Ireland. His existence is solitary and bare-bones. A small farm lines the walkway to his small cabin, and only a few photos of “life before” remind him of the community he’s spent seven years without. The film begins at what is likely the survivalist’s breaking point; he panics when feeling a hand touch his shoulder deep in the woods – a figment of another person. He then tears apart the pictures he’s carried for years, burning them in what we can surmise is an act of acceptance – these people aren’t here and never will be again. Then, just as he’s resigned himself to existing in isolation, two women appear at his door.
Catherine is silver-haired, in her 60s, traveling with daughter Milja, who’s young, beautiful and clearly hardened. The two ask for a piece of the survivalist’s crop, but settle for a night’s stay (after much coaxing). Over dinner we see Catherine give a portion of her food to Milja, the gesture of a mother that will put her daughter’s survival in front of her own. Yet, just as quickly, Catherine concedes that Milja sleep with the survivalist, a complicit part of letting them stay. “Don’t come inside her,” Catherine asks, before being shut inside an adjacent room. Her deadpan request followed by Milja’s matter-of-fact undressing, show that this form of bartering has been done before. Catherine makes sacrifices for Milja, but it goes both ways. And as much as we’d like the main character to have a set of strict morals we’re so used to seeing, there’s no hesitation in acting on his lust. In this way too, the film shows us how solitude and constant threat make us necessarily selfish.
The single night arrangement stretches into a few weeks. This makeshift alliance between the three is thin at best; allegiances constantly shift between mother, daughter and their host. In fact, we come to question what significance “family” has in this environment – a theme that is reinforced by the survivalist’s flashbacks to how his brother died. As the farm comes under attack from marauders, again we see just how much humankind has devolved without society. The actions of our main characters seem harsh, but it’s nothing compared with what else is out there. In all, The Survivalist draws up questions of who we become when our existence is a struggle, and the factors that are powerful enough to remind us of the morality we lost.
The Survivalist does not have a UK release date yet.