After the world’s oil production dips and the population continues to expand, a man (Martin McCann) lives off a small plot of land hidden deep in the forest. When Kathyrn (Olwen Fouere) and her daughter Milja (Mia Goth) find his hideout and offer to trade for food, an uneasy alliance springs up between them. It is not long, however, before this peace is shattered by shifting loyalties and a lack of food.
The Survivalist marks the feature debut for established short filmmaker Stephen Fingleton. The film is set at an undetermined future point, where food is rare and the need to survive has turned mankind against each other. Although there are hints that this film takes place somewhere in Northern Ireland – where it was shot – one of the strengths of The Survivalist is the fact that it could be set anywhere in the world.
Martin McCann leads the cast as the solitary man, farming the land and trying to survive in an isolated cabin in the woods. When first we meet this man, he is burying a body; giving us the feel that this is a man who is willing to go to extreme lengths in order to stay alive. Dialogue is minimal in The Survivalist, and McCann certainly adheres to this idea of cinematic silence, but although there is not a lot of conversation in the film, there is plenty of communication, and McCann easily broadcasts his thoughts and fears to the audience.
Olwen Fouere plays the over bearing mother of the obviously teenage Milja and again, she has learned that survival in this new world is down to doing what needs to be done for the sake of her daughter. Fouere is formidable in her role, and makes the character feel as though she is consistently on a knife edge, waiting to spring. Mia Goth makes Milja go through the most remarkable transformation in the film; at first literally standing in her mother’s shadow, it soon becomes clear that this girl is the one who actually holds the power in this three way relationship, and it is her loyalties that decide the fate of the others.
Stephen Fingleton’s screenplay for The Survivalist must have been only a couple of pages long, dialogue is so short on the ground here, but the silence and the new way of communication that grows up between the characters ensures that the audience is never left wondering as to motivation. Back-stories are hinted at just enough to keep the film moving, but this is not a story about the past.
As director, Fingleton allows the tension of the film to ebb and flow, as trust and loyalties change from scene to scene. Just as it seems the film has lost momentum, something else goes wrong; wrong enough to keep the story moving and allowing the audience to learn a little more about the characters we are spending time with. The film is beautifully shot by Damien Elliott, in a way that shows the contrast between the inside and the outside, between life and death. Although the opening explanation as to just how humanity became so doomed feels a little out of place with the rest of the film.
In all, The Survivalist is a lean, atmospheric and superbly acted thriller from first time director Stephen Fingleton. The pacing allows tension to build, the cinematography is beautiful and the story just enough to keep the audience enthralled. If only that infographic at the start of the film had been cut.