Craig Zobel got under a lot of people's skin with 2012's taut thriller Compliance about a fast-food employee's horrific interrogation by her superior, and with Z for Zachariah, he continues to plumb the complex inner workings of human interaction in this post-apocalyptic drama propelled by issues of gender, race, and religion.
Set in the near future, the tomboyish Ann (the lovely Margot Robbie) lives in a rich fertile dell and forages for food with her dog. She lives a quiet, remote existence. Down the hill from the big farm house she encamps, there's an abandoned gas station and a church and that's about it.
While out on one such expedition to recover game from snares, Ann stumbles upon a stranger in a spacesuit-like encasing waiving a Geiger counter. It's then that we know the world is no longer a friendly place and that these may in fact be the last two humans on the planet. The how and why isn't exactly explained, just that radioactive contamination is definitively a part of it.
For Ann, seeing another human is not an immediate reason for joy. Employing wary caution, she doesn't engage but observes from afar as the stranger discards the suit and goes for a swim in a waterfall, which of course is contaminated and takes an immediate toll. It's only then that the god-fearing Ann kicks into good Christian mode and takes the weakened Loomis (Academy Award nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor) back to the farm for nourishment and mending. Based on the 1974 book of the same name by Robert C. O'Brien, Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi's somber film is largely restricted to the dynamics between Ann and Loomis, the prospect of repopulation, and dark pasts. Despite their stark ideological and theological differences, the two create a tenuous, yet codependent existence.
Enter Caleb (Chris Pine), another outsider who wanders into the valley. Like Ann, he's white, religious, simple in purview, and very virile. With the introduction of the newcomer, the sexual and theological universe that Ann and Loomis inhabit is thrown into tremulous chaos. The stakes and tension are held at a pitch high level while the currents of social commentary about humanity, civility, and faith run deep. Astonishingly enough, for all its flare and thematic drive, Z for Zachariah is mostly a stolid affair. Zobel, who went to hyperbolic ends to crank up the fire in Compliance, seems hampered by the contemplative nature of the material. The three very capable actors apply their skills, with Robbie and Pine employing the same off-the-shelf bumpkin drawl, while Ejiofor gets something more juicy, but equally restrained, as the chorus of logic and science ironically planted in the Garden with Adam and Eve. But in the end what's missing from Zobel's dystopian Sunday-school ditherings about creationism, evolution, and primal needs is any sense of urgency.