Following on from the likes of Good Vibrations, Shadow Dancer and ’71, Northern Irish cinema is going through something of a glorious period, yet all three of the aforementioned endeavours focus on The Troubles. With filmmakers looking to the past, it’s important too that they start creating new stories and look to the future – and that’s exactly what debutant Stephen Fingleton has done with The Survivalist, a science-fiction film with no CGI, boasting a simplistic premise, executed in a deft, affecting and captivating way.
Set in the not-too-distant-future we witness a world suffering in the aftermath of an unspecific natural disaster, diminishing the population, and eradicating traditional social structures and rules that we abide by today. It’s here we meet the Survivalist (Martin McCann) who lives off the land, with a modest sized shed which he calls home. In an age of starvation, his crops are desirable to anybody passing by – albeit infrequently – and he becomes the focus of attention for Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) and her teenage daughter Milja (Mia Goth) who seek refuge and food. With inherent sexual desires, they forge an arrangement, but it’s one that could potentially disrupt and even destroy this man’s humble existence.
This minimalist, intense and uncomfortable piece of cinema is immensely subtle and nuanced, and though the narrative appears to be so immense in scale, it’s by no means executed in that manner, instead working as a candid character study that focuses solely on these three characters, and uses them as a means and catalyst to explore the landscape and the world they inhabit. Through them we get a real sense for the environment. The Survivalist also marks a striking debut for Fingleton, who is prepared to take risks, to be innovative and bold, and not adhere to convention. The film comes complete with a profound message too about our own relationship with the land, and how we seek to destroy it; and yet if that were to happen, it’s all we would have left to rely on. Despite the message to this piece though, it’s never overbearing or contrived, as Fingleton allows the viewer to work this out for themselves.
The director even turned down the chance of U.S. investment, concerned that it would turn this picture into something grandiose. There’s only one shotgun in this film and it becomes a beacon of power – had it been Americanised we may well have seen a whole arsenal of weapons, which would have taken away the impact. Here’s a filmmaker to keep a very close eye on, though with a deserved BAFTA nomination to his name already (for Outstanding Debut), he’s hardly likely to be out of the limelight for very long.