If there’s one thing The Survivalist gets right, it’s the avoidance of unnecessary exposition. Bar an artsy opening graphic that informs us of the collapse of the global population not long after the planet’s oil reserves nosedive, Northern Irish writer/director Stephen Fingleton’s debut feature tells us absolutely nothing about the state of the world it inhabits. That’s with the full awareness that it doesn’t need to, because we already know the story from decades’ worth of dystopian science fiction, most blatantly of course the Mad Max series. In short, things are probably very, very bad.
Which is fine, though the trouble is, when you rely on such genre expectations to fill in your storytelling gaps, whether by choice or by omission, there’s a tendency to fall back on tropes that might charitably be considered ‘problematic’. And The Survivalist is very much guilty of this, setting up an unenlightened power dynamic between its titular protagonist (Martin McCann) – a nameless loner holed up in a forest cabin somewhere in Ireland and one who’s not above murder to preserve his isolation from whatever’s happening elsewhere in the big, bad world – and the weary travellers, a mother and daughter, who visit upon him from out of the blue.
Immediately it’s assumed that sex is currency, as the mother (veteran Irish stage performer Olwen Fouéré) offers her daughter Milja (Mia Goth, an actor in her mid 20s who looks 10 years younger) in exchange for a place to stay. That’s bad enough, but when the man and Milja almost immediately kindle a kind of primitive romance, it only reinforces hackneyed rape-culture notions of women secretly gagging to be taken by a bit of rough. That the women might have ulterior motives for their acquiescence is almost beside the point. It was bad 45 years ago when Straw Dogs caused controversy, and it comes off even worse today.
But that also highlights an uncomfortable contradiction between the film’s low-brow grindhouse inspirations and its artier leanings. Fingleton references Andrei Tarkovsky, most obviously, in his story’s deliberate ambiguity – and in one dizzying crane shot tracking between both sides of a tense stand-off in a placid meadow. He also includes plenty of full-frontal nudity, with one particularly wince-inducing scene involving a length of wire that begs comparison to Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, but shies away from the elementary gruesomeness of plucking maggots from the loose soil of a burial mound.
There’s a stark contrast, too, in The Survivalist between the bleakness of its underwritten characters’ existence and the idyll of nature that surrounds them. The lush green of the trees and ferns, the sweetness of birdsong: it’s a natural world that continues as if nothing has happened, because from nature’s perspective it hasn’t. It’s a shame that Fingleton allows hollow transgressive pretensions to detract from such compositional strengths, but the film does show promise. As a filmmaker he will be one to watch, no doubt.
Also out this Friday is Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip, the fourth cinematic outing for the helium-voiced singing rodents and easily the worst of the bunch, playing like it was shot over a long weekend, and written just as hastily. There is nothing of value here, unless hateful characters, dated musical numbers (the centrepiece is a chipmunk-ified rendition of ‘Uptown Funk’ that I’m sure will go down swimmingly a couple of years let alone a decade from now) and false advertising (there is really no road trip to speak of) are your bag. Jason Lee is particularly off-form with his resigned delivery and general air of wishing he were somewhere, anywhere else. Hope the cheque was a big one, bro.
The Survivalist opens at Dublin’s IFI on Friday February 12th. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip opens nationwide on the same date.