This is a thriller that starts out rather slowly and peacefully with rolling hills in a lush green valley (filming was in New Zealand and West Virginia) where Ann (Margot) has been abandoned on her family’s farm after some kind of nuclear holocaust. By some kind of accident of weather, the valley has been shielded from radiation that is rumored to be everywhere else. Ann has her dog for company and is self-sufficient in getting food and other necessities, at least temporarily. She wonders if she is the last person on earth, and then comes upon a man in a safe suit out on the road. They’re both wary of one another and pull out guns immediately until they can determine the trustworthiness of the other.
Ann seems much less suspicious than the civil engineer Loomis (Ejiofor) who has radiation sickness, and takes him up to her house where she nurses him back to health, injecting into him some type of medicine he has that serves as an antidote. He has been traumatized by recent events, and her tender, loving touch is like a balm for him.
The two start becoming close, and he begins to use his engineering skills in rebuilding efforts. It’s clear they are from different cultures, he from the north and educated; she, the daughter of a southern farmer/minister who sees Loomis as someone God has sent to help her. There is the budding of a romance, but he advises her that they should proceed slowly because of the effect it will have on both their lives.
One day, Ann sees another man when she is out with her dog, and gets enough nerve to approach him with her gun in her hand. Turns out, Caleb (Pine) is from a nearby mining town and shares many of Ann’s religious beliefs. When she takes him to the house, Loomis is aghast that she immediately invites him to stay with them and fixes dinner for him. But Caleb plans to stay only for a day or so because he is headed farther south.
Triangles are the most difficult of relationships, and when Caleb energetically helps out with chores and rebuilding—even helping to get a water wheel constructed to generate electricity—his stay is extended. And this is when the story heats up with some of the expected twists and a rather ambiguous conclusion.
I wondered how the title relates to the drama, and it seems that in the Robert C. O’Brien novel on which the screenplay is based, Ann has a childhood book called A to Z, and she concluded that if A is for Adam the first man, Z is for Zachariah, the last man—the situation she finds herself in before Loomis appears. There is a reference to the book in the film when Loomis pulls it off the shelf in Ann’s library, and looks at it briefly.
Zachariah explores the tension that exists in times of disaster between fear and charity. Not only do Ann and Loomis embody these emotional reactions, all three characters relate their experiences with desperation and with other human beings dealing with the aftermath of the tragedy. All convey the difficulty/necessity of maintaining hope during the bleakest times. We are reminded of how critical survival skills are, sometimes making the difference between life and death. It was also interesting—and imminently plausible—that people would venture out, not grasping the dangers of radiation.
Craig Zobel shows his skills as a director (he also directed Compliance) of films that bring home points about human relationship, ethics, and fairness. Zachariah is well paced, topical, and beautifully filmed (Tim Orr, cinematographer, and also for Manglehorn, Joe, and Prince Avalanche). The actress Margot Robbie is not as well known as the other two, but she clearly carries her part forcefully here. Ejiofor is one of my favorite actors, and he and Robbie convey as much in nonverbal signs as in what they say. Pine manages to walk the fine line that he as a kind of intruder must in relationship to the other two who have become very close, but with each of whom he has much in common.
A film that prompts questions; how might you be in similar circumstances?