It's easy to forget how crucial a role sound plays in the experience of a film. Neither dialogue nor music interrupts the first 17 minutes of first-time feature director Stephen Fingleton's riveting dystopian thriller The Survivalist. Set in an unspecified future in which oil production has ceased, industrial food distribution has collapsed and populations have plummeted, The Survivalist uses its extended introduction to acclimate audiences to the film's unique minimalist style.
The emphasis is on visual storytelling as the soundtrack presents ambient forest sounds and the soft clatter of tools and implements used to sustain the solitary life of the title character (who remains unnamed) on a small farm. The Survivalist reduces film to an elemental state to reflect what happens to human life when food is scarce and survival is everything. It's not often viewers see form and content working together like that on film.
Survivalist (Martin McCann) can't remain solitary for long. His cabin and farm are under constant threat from other survivors willing to kill for food. When Kathryn (Olwen Fouere) and her teenage daughter Milja (Mia Goth) arrive at the farm seeking food and shelter, Survivalist must decide if some form of companionship is worth the mortal risks and division of scant resources. Ultimately, the film is about how human relationships are transformed by dire need. How can anyone be trusted under circumstances like these?
The limited use of dialogue even after additional characters arrive (Fingleton has said there may be 100 lines of dialogue in his 103-minute film) resonates with the film's larger themes and bolsters its realism. Communication tends to be efficient when used mainly to help others stay alive, and no one has energy to waste on idle chatter when there's not enough food to go around. In a film like this, quiet scenes always suggest their own sudden and potentially violent disruption. The Survivalist maintains an extraordinary level of tension and suspense throughout.
As well-conceived and executed as it is, The Survivalist wouldn't get far without the performances required to drive its visual storytelling. McCann (who, like Fingleton, hails from Northern Ireland) has had small roles in both British-made and Hollywood films and here shows the presence and acting chops to keep viewers fully engaged.
Goth (Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac films) brings depth to a character who emerges slowly over the course of the film. Authenticity and plausibility are The Survivalist's essential ingredients, and the actors — wearing no makeup and appearing almost dangerously thin to reflect the famine depicted in the story — supply those elements in spades.
The Survivalist reportedly emerged from its writer-director's desire to mount an all-analog work of science fiction that needed neither special effects nor a large budget to make its mark. Fingleton's film illustrates how the right story idea can bring a goal like that within reach. There's nothing quite like a good post-apocalyptic drama, a subset of science fiction to which The Survivalist makes a vital contribution.