Z for Zachariah

Posted by Joel Copling on September 9, 2015

Restraint and evasion are two, very different phenomena, and the two halves of "Z for Zachariah" accomplish both in that order and to predictable results. The first half of director Craig Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi's adaptation of Robert C. O'Brien's novel of the same name is strong in its laser focus on two characters who are, it seems, alone in this dystopia. The second half introduces a character (who, apparently and unsurprisingly, did not exist in the novel) whose presence only works to bring the whole affair into the melodramatic territory of a romantic triangle. It's as disjointed and unfocused as it sounds, and it's a disappointment after 45 minutes of cautious, affectionate build-up.

It's been a number of years since radiation poisoning wiped out most of the planet's population. Ann (Margot Robbie) is the survivor of whom she is consciously aware, whiling away the days with her dog, tending to her farm, and searching out the surrounding area. That's when she meets John (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a doctor of some sort who is unwittingly washing himself in a radioactive waterfall. The two strike up a bond as she oversees his return to health. It's a sweet relationship, certainly built mostly out of the need for the companionship of another human but, thanks to the performances by Robbie and Ejiofor, unforced and natural. We don't learn much about either of them (other than Ann's Christian upbringing and the harsh truth of what John has been forced to do in the wilderness), but that's ok: There isn't all that much to tell in a post-pandemic landscape.

And then Caleb (Chris Pine) arrives, thrusting the narrative into an unnecessary and feeble competition between the two men and the woman caught in between. Caleb is ruggedly handsome, shares many of Ann's habits (such as mealtime prayer) that John rejects, and even persuades her to dismantle her father's old church in which he preached in order to build a water wheel at a nearby riverside. All of this is played as secondary to the dueling machismo of having two men fight for her affections (That her ultimate choice is to be impulsive calls into serious question the film's priorities, and that Caleb's fate is so vague is only further proof of this).

These three characters are the only ones we see, and the performances are uniformly solid. Robbie sports a believable Southern accent, especially for an Australian actress, and is strong at portraying a person with an interior as rugged yet soft as her exterior. Pine is solid with what he's given, which isn't all that much in the long run (only about half an hour of screen time). Ejiofor is the highlight, though, desperate and melancholy in equal measure as John. Good performances, however, cannot ultimately transcend solid material simplified to the point of aggravation in "Z for Zachariah," a film that could do with checking what "restraint" actually means in the dictionary.

Film Information

Margot Robbie (Ann), Chiwetel Ejiofor (John), Chris Pine (Caleb).

Directed by Craig Zobel and written by Nissar Modi, based on the novel by Robert C. O'Brien.

Rated PG-13 (sexuality, partial nudity, brief language).

95 minutes.

Released in select cities on August 21, 2015.