Impressively lean and rigidly controlled, “The Survivalist” achieves, at times, the primitive allure of a silent movie. And that’s not simply because of the characters’ reticence (the entirety of the dialogue could probably fit on a single page), but because the film’s Irish writer and director, Stephen Fingleton, has an intensity of purpose that infects his characters’ every move and gesture.
He’s also blessed with an unwaveringly steady hand (as is his director of photography, Damien Elliott) that persists through moments of stark brutality. Set in an indeterminate time and place — after an unexplained oil-related catastrophe — the story plays out in a leafy wood where an unnamed man (Martin McCann) subsists on meager crops and painful memories. These recollections are signaled by a crumpled photograph and sudden, sparse flashbacks that flare and fade.
The arrival of a starving mother and daughter (perfectly embodied by Olwen Fouéré and Mia Goth) disrupts the survivalist’s methodical routines and hardened emotions. Sex can be traded for food and shelter, but trust has no price; and as relationships shift and outside perils multiply, the movie’s real tension is cooked in the constantly adjusting space that separates these three characters. To survive, three must become two.
Employing neither computer-generated effects nor a distracting score, “The Survivalist” bolsters its pitiless tone and uneasy mood with natural woodland sounds and the unreliable light of fire and lamp. Observing the film’s horrors with the same neutral gaze as its softer moments, Fingleton seems to acknowledge that when society falls apart, empathy might be the first and most regrettable casualty.
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(At Screenland Tapcade.)
Not rated. Time: 1:44