The Survivalist

Stephen Fingleton’s tense, hypnotic and masterful debut, shot in and around Ballymoney, is a mesmerising dystopian tale

There is a moment not far from the conclusion of The Survivalist that perfectly captures the essence of Stephen Fingleton’s raw, hypnotic and masterful debut feature. Mia Goth’s Milja — an impassive and steel-cored young woman, as hardy as she is damaged — gathers herself, naked, before the flames of a stove, opens her legs and attempts a form of medieval self-surgery so horrifying that it sends tears rolling down her otherwise calm features. 

To provide reasons for her doing so is to ruin the film’s delicately constructed finale, though, in truth, this particular experience merely keeps track with the overall tone. Unflinchingly honest, stylish in its delivery, Fingleton’s muscular arrival as an auteur of singular poise is both a dystopian fable and a chilling examination of the brutalities lying dormant within humanity’s animal self. In its own quiet way, this is a test of endurance; like it or loathe it, embrace the grim premise or be repulsed, there is no escaping its power. 

The director has labelled his piece an ‘anti-science fiction film’ – an apt description. His is a picture of glowering immediacy, based not on an Earth that is dying but one that feels and sounds alive, shorn of the humans who once decimated it. Set in the wake of an unspecified, slow-burning, never-discussed global catastrophe — one which may yet be ongoing — Martin McCann’s eponymous loner (nameless throughout) lives a dismal existence in a remote forest, barely drawing sustenance from the land surrounding his small cabin. 

His life is an ugly hand-to-mouth scramble, beset by meagre resources and an ever-present threat of outsiders seeking to steal his supplies. Indeed, the initial third is a spartan affair, light on dialogue and exposition, carrying Fingleton’s vision ever forward, and pausing only to take in the distance between this life and our own contemporary understanding of civilisation. For all the bucolic, sun-dappled elegance of the setting (Ballymoney in July, to be exact), replete with a lush verdancy captured lovingly by cinematographer Damien Elliot, a darkness of place and mood festers in the near background. 

The first words of a spare script are uttered when Milja and her mother, Kathryn (Irish thesp Olwen Fouéré) stumble upon the woodland homestead seeking food and refuge. Of course, in this post-collapse landscape, everything has a price, thus Kathryn pimps her daughter in exchange for the Survivalist’s hospitality and Milja, clearly familiar with the drill, happily obliges so as to enjoy his protection. 

Interestingly, from this point, some measure of domestic tranquillity descends on proceedings, Kathryn and Milja settling in to aid their host in the upkeep of his humble holding, as the latter woman exploits his basic need for human contact. Perhaps unsurprisingly, and never to be forgotten, survival is at the core of every character’s motivation. Fingleton’s world is ruthless. Its people press on for one simple reason: because they must. 

In technical terms, much of The Survivalist is mesmerising, laced with an air of swaggering confidence that belies its creator’s relative inexperience. One bravura scene, wordless and bristling with tension, plays out in an eerie grassland that ripples with violence and the hum of nature. The beautiful floating crane shot at the centre of the sequence belongs in a project afforded more than the relatively modest £1 million budget entrusted to Fingleton, who squeezes every penny from the coffers.

Impressively, nothing in this lean beast of a film is rushed. Only short, sharp bouts of peril puncture the sombre ambience as days and, apparently, even months pass without comment. Furthermore, Fingelton's frank tale often veers away from cheap thrills, with gratuitous savagery or sex being ignored, hinted at instead of pored over. 

Forming a formidable trio, then, the main players convince as denizens of tomorrow’s planet. In the lead role, McCann is excellent, carrying the movie for much of its 104 minutes. The Belfast actor — twitchy, gimlet-eyed, entirely capable — displays an unsettling intensity, a signature edge that is utterly believable in the context of his character, and accomplishes the substantial task of making a man unburdened by softness, plagued by encroaching delusions, seem almost sympathetic. 

Beside him, Fouéré is every inch his equal, her long snowy hair and watchful gaze casting her as some kind of woodland sorceress come to claim this patch. Goth, meanwhile, is fascinating in her inscrutability. Best known from Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, she turns in a performance every bit as brave as McCann’s: steady and resourceful. A true child of the post-apocalypse, Milja possesses a keen instinct that even her mother fails to comprehend, and it is her struggle that ultimately comes to the fore. 

In spite of the film's startling accomplishments, it is not without flaws. As bracing as it is, trading in potential realities rather than fantasies, that which serves as an underlying ecological message is quickly abandoned. A clever opening graphic depicts the relationship between population growth and international oil production, yet it is the only context in a film otherwise lacking broader themes. This sits awkwardly in hindsight, an element that is left unexplored save for McCann’s parsimonious attitude to his own fuel stocks. The finale, too, features a band of marauders who may well be more significant than their screen time suggests.

The good far outweighs the weaker ingredients, however. A former fixture on Hollywood’s Black List of challenging unmade screenplays, The Survivalist would appear to be worth the wait, undoubtedly the film that Derry native Fingleton wished to conjure. In the past year, he has taken his work to both the Tribeca and Belfast film festivals, important showcases for a movie that has no cuddly edges to attract the masses. This is a Northern Irish film that deserves an international audience.

The Survivalist runs at Queen’s Film Theatre from February 5 - 18. It goes on general release throughout the UK on February 12.