When a film creates fear in a subtle backdrop or moment, it resonates with you enough that as weeks lapse, you remember that partially moment in the movie you were uneased. Z for Zachariah is that very film. Based (though extremely loosely) on the 1974 novel of the same name by Robert C. O’Brien, the movie (directed by Craig Zobel, screenplay by Nissar Modi) follows farm girl Ann Burden (Margot Robbie) in the aftermath of the end of the world and her interactions between John Loomis (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Caleb (Chris Pine). With only a piece of paradise unharmed by radiation, it’s still not big enough for three individuals in this slightly twisted love triangle.
I have yet to read the book, though to understand some aspects of the film, I researched the plot and realized there were a lot of differences between the book in the film, the biggest one being Caleb’s character (which doesn’t exist in the books). Creative control can be a dangerous thing–there are several book to silver screen mistakes made over the years, but this film isn’t one of those. It’s different, but it’s translated in a way that digs deep in a different direction than the book – namely the love triangle.
But it avoids the cliche, and deep jealousy felt by John’s character is seen subtlety in his expressions, which Ejiofor does amazingly. If you are intrigued at this point, by all means stop reading this article and rent the film (Redbox has it).
In a small town, Ann is the only one left after her family, including her thirteen year old brother, left the safety of the safe zone to find survivors. A year has passed and she remains alone, wearing a biosuit through town as she collects items to take back. Along the road to home, she finds a man in an elaborate bio suit checking the air for radiation and with success of a safe zone, strips down. Ann watches him but by the time she gets to him, he is already washing himself in a spring that has been infected with radiation. She alerts him, he pulls out his gun in fear, and this is the first piece in the puzzle for the two. Between trying to find ways to survive long term, overcoming the end of the world and the bizarre sexual tension, the two are set to figure it out together. Then Caleb appears and derails the plans. Being around the same age as Ann (with John being much older), flirtation grows like a sickly disease, at least in the mind of John as he watches the two interact. With subtle jabs here and there and as simple as Ann is emotionally, her existence becomes an importance to both of the men, however in the end, we learn that in the safety of the land they all share, it’s everything but safe.
At the beginning, Ann visits a small church her father built, playing the organ, almost emotionally content with life after a rough year without any human beings. She even reveals she almost died the winter previously. When John enters the picture, an engineer, he sees the church as a resource – mostly using the wood in order to build a water-wheel. Ann’s pious nature and having just the church left of her father, detests. When Caleb enters the picture, a fellow believer and claimed child of a minister like Ann derives from, plays into Ann’s thought process before agreeing that a water-wheel is necessary to make electricity and last the winter. In the process of the building and installing the water-wheel (and in that time push and pull of relationships), the final scene for Caleb happens as he is climbing to the top of the waterfall, his rope being held by a tree. He slips, John instinctively grabs it. Once leveled, Caleb falls again, this time it seems deliberate. John grabs the rope again, but this time Caleb’s face is more villainous and the anguish John is feeling as you can see that he is changing his mind about holding the rope plays out in his expression.
Its an intense and thoughtful scene.
It’s also ambiguous as it doesn’t actually show what happens. The clip below is after the scene (though they seemed to have mixed a few scenes up, the first when he goes into the barn is actually part of the very last scene while the remainder is right after John tells Ann that Caleb left, despite leaving his stuff…).
The ambiguity works for several reasons and I want to believe John really did kill Caleb, and not just because of the subtle hints Ejiofor mentions in interviews. First off, not seeing the death adds to the beauty to the film, yet it leaves you uncomfortable, almost haunted by the thoughts–how it looked when Caleb fell, the flailing arms, the splash of the water etc.
Questions emerge like how would he die, he had the biosuit on? or wouldn’t he have hit the wooden piece leading the water into the wheel? The questions built doubt for me, until the next scene when John returned to the house and told Ann Caleb was gone with the maybe fictitious town of survivors, letting her know he left his stuff and she could have it. He can barely keep eye contact with Ann and she runs out the door to search for him. The idea is no one would leave their gear behind, not when traveling outside a safe zone in the aftermath of the end of the world.
Other clues allude to his death, especially when John returns to the place he may have killed Caleb, his feet hanging far over the edge (which could be the guilt pushing him there or he is trying to see if the body has sunk–who knows, but that’s the idea).
Through a lot of searching, a few movie viewers had other suggestions such as Caleb seeing he was hurting what John and Ann could be and leaving, being satisfied he made trouble, and having second thoughts. This does not satisfy; he wouldn’t have gone through so much trouble just to leave for a place that may not even be safe–also, he has Ann wrapped around his finger, shelter and food. Another commenter suggested that in the end, the organ has moved from the broken down church to the barn and it would be impossible to move with just one person. Though that one stumped me slightly, John in this version is an engineer and they have a tractor. Also, the way John is in the final scene, hands clenched, visibly shaken as Ann plays, it’s more likely he is feeling the guilt of killing Caleb, possibly one of the only people left on Earth. Another commenter made an excellent observation–the way the film has some similarities of the book before John goes crazy, which happens in the novel and Ann is forced to flee.
Between the tension, expressions and ambiguity, the film runs a thin line of being a horror show without the cheesy monster and blood because the only monster is human nature.