You can’t buy good cinema. In a week brimming with well-budgeted international releases, the best film is from Northern Ireland and looks as if it cost two farthings and a rabbit. That’s more or less what the hero (Martin McCann) lives on in first-time feature maker Stephen Fingleton’s darkly enthralling, eerily poetic The Survivalist. Isolated in a forest, he farms a few spindly crops and mantraps and kills a few trespassers. With his ratty Mohican and lean features, he looks like an undernourished Daniel Day-Lewis.
It’s the future. Fossil fuels are exhausted. Everyone is for himself. Suspense abounds, in this story, yet also an uncanny grace. Think of Mad Max, directed by an art house minimalist. Then the film’s population explodes to three — a white-haired mother (Olwen Fouéré) and the daughter (Mia Goth) she peddles to the loner for food and habitation. The young girl, bringing a saintly glow with her victimhood, looks like large-eyed, baby-pale Anne Wiazemsky in Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthasar.
The trio’s shared days in a cabin become a jigsaw of hope, fear, jealousy, mutual distrust: a puzzle picture resolved only at those times when they come together to fight a common enemy. The first raiding party lays waste the crops and puts a bullet in one defender’s belly, the second . . . Well, wait and see.
Subtly our loyalties shift between three characters as each scene unlayers new insights and identifies new vulnerabilities. Whenever Fingleton’s direction starts to seem penny-plain he startles us with something epiphanic: a camera slow-rising above a field concealing a hidden pursuer; the queasy overhead shot catching the hero’s inner panic; or the mesmerising cross-cutting between an attempted DIY abortion inside the cabin and a woodland creature, ghostly in the dark, circling a waiting trap outside. Fugue to the slaughter of innocents? Prayer for their survival? Could be either or both. By the end of The Survivalist the story’s echo chamber has become that large, that strange, that elusive, that haunting.