The Survivalist (2015) Review

I was a bit late to this one, but nonetheless felt compelled to put something up about it.


Martin McCann in The Survivalist

Stephen Fingleton’s directorial debut, The Survivalist, is an art house dystopian drama about, surprisingly, a survivalist, played by Martin McCann, living alone in a shack out in the Irish forests.

The film opens with a brilliantly minimalist graphical animation that immediately establishes a stylistic precedent for the sparsity that defines the film, both diegetically and aesthetically. The Survivalist is a masterclass in directorial restraint, frugal world-building and implicit narration. With a single animated graph, Fingleton tells us everything we need to know about this world and its context: the oil ran out and everybody died.

Visually, the film is verdant and lush. The camera floats across green fields and digs into the earthy brown soils of Ireland’s forests with a loose airiness that punctuates the agrestic quiet and emptiness of the film’s long and careful sequences. Even the violence is treated with a gentleness that cogitates more on psychology than physicality. The film’s few confrontations are about mindset and trickery, rather than brute force and aggression. Fingleton’s camera is meditative and careful even in the film’s most tense and brutal scenes.

McCann’s survivalist is quite the opposite: constantly on-edge, paranoid and twitchy. He’s stiff, choked, and utterly possessed by the singular will to survive, putting everything, his time and effort, even himself- quite literally, with his urine and excrement- into conserving his austere existence; sustaining his meager crop and maintaining his scant inventory. Every day is the same, and everything is about being ready and able to deal with whatever or whoever comes next.

That ‘whoever’ ends up being a mother, Kathryn, and daughter, Milja, played by theatre actress Olwen Fouéré and Nymphomaniac‘s Mia Goth, respectively. The couple strike a deal with the survivalist: room and board, so as long as Milja shares his bed every night. This problematic arrangement is the crux of the film. It is fortunate, then, that it is also the best and most engaging part. The way in which the trio’s relationships fluctuate over the course of the film is as compelling as it is disturbing.

Contrary to the edgy critical consensus that thinks we need to come out of every rough-and-tumble art film feeling like Bear Grylls, The Survivalist is not some bleak two-hour slog. This is not the pretentious masochism of your Blue Ruin‘s; it’s a human film about human people. The Survivalist shows us the best and worst of humanity, from the darkest to the most endearing and loyal. That’s not relentless; that’s honest. It’s not all death and betrayal, it’s just that what love there is hides among it, and can even be synonymous. Such is the grayed marvel of the movie’s muddy morality- we don’t know who to like or who to hate; who’s right and who’s wrong. In Fingleton’s naked diegesis, every action feels morally variegated and tangled. One particular scene, involving some intimate fever-relief, really illustrates what I mean, but I won’t spoil it for you; it’s surprising, it’s touching, and it’s complicated, so go in blind and see what you think.

Featuring three fantastic performances, and an admirable expository minimalism and visual deftness to rival the best of the contemporary art house circuit, The Survivalist is an easy recommendation to make. Be prepared, but don’t be afraid. Don’t let the blood mask the humanity that rests at the heart of Fingelton’s twisted visual poetry.



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