Stephen Fingleton’s debut feature, The Survivalist, arrived at Tribeca in 2015 with the kind of expectations that are, well, tough to survive. The script was on both the 2012 Hollywood Black List (tied for fourteenth) and the 2013 Brit List (number one) of best unproduced screenplays; the self-taught Fingleton has been included in various names-to-watch, stars-of-tomorrow lists; and his twenty-three-minute SLR was shortlisted for an Oscar. Despite all the buildup, The Survivalist lives up to its billing as a gripping dystopian thriller from a major new talent. In the indeterminate near-future, oil production has plummeted while population growth exploded, leaving very little food available. Deep in the forest, an unnamed man (Martin McCann) lives by himself, fiercely defending his small cabin and vegetable garden. He is part Mad Max, part Rambo, setting traps to catch animals and protect him from other humans who might threaten his self-sufficient existence. But when the stoic Kathryn (Olwen Fouéré) and her teenage daughter, Milja (Mia Goth), show up, asking for temporary food and shelter — and willing to offer an alluring trade for them — the survivalist ultimately decides to let them into his carefully organized private world, knowing that things could change drastically at any moment.
The Survivalist opens with long scenes of no dialogue or music at all, just naturalistic soundscapes, setting the stage for an intense, powerful experience. The Northern Ireland forest is like a character unto itself, living, breathing, fraught with menace. Fingleton and cinematographer Damien Elliott zoom in extra close on the man’s eye lashes, as if each individual hair were fighting for existence as well. McCann (Shadow Dancer, Clash of the Titans) combines danger with tenderness when he softly caresses a photograph of a woman or makes soup for Kathryn and Milja, his eyes ever-alert, revealing someone who is still trying to hold on to his last vestiges of humanity. Theater veteran Fouéré and young actress Goth are superb as a mother-and-daughter team desperate to make it through the apocalypse. The relationship among the three protagonists evokes Don Siegel’s underrated 1971 Civil War drama The Beguiled, in which Clint Eastwood plays a wounded soldier being tended to in a girls boarding school, only taking place here in the future instead of in the past. Despite knowing better, you’ll want to root for all three of them to triumph in this horrific ticking-time-bomb of a world, which might be a whole lot closer than we think. Fingleton also made a well-received short prequel of sorts, Magpie, which establishes the fiercely taught mood of the feature film but is best watched afterward.