Stephen Singleton’s The Survivalist is an extraordinarily beautiful film, mostly without dialogue, much of the emotion and narrative drive is left to the bodies and movements of its three main characters, Survivalist (Martin McCann), Milja (Mia Goth) and Kathryn (Olwen Fouere). Paranoia, suspicions and secrets are the currency of the characters and the film itself, which leaves much to the imagination leaves the audience wondering how they have gotten into this situation.
In the wake of some kind of unspoken tragedy, Survivalist leaves alone in a cabin in the woods where he has cultivated his own crop. He is purposely hidden deep, where no one else can find him and he can exist alone, trying his hardest to survive. But one day, when Milja and her mother Kathryn turn up looking for food and refuge, he finds his land is threatened and his world is coming as he knows it.
The cinematography and direction of The Survivalist is without a doubt, something to marvel at and appreciate – it’s subtle and moving, taking the audience through the world as if they were implicit in the Survivalist’s actions. There isn’t a moment where the audience are made to feel alienated from their central character – their guide to the story, but instead are made to feel alienated from the rest of the world (which is wonderfully done, considering the film takes place in the massive expanse of the woods) and are just as unsure about these new people entering his land as the Survivalist himself.
Even the performances from the central three are calculated and precise, finely portrayed and understanding that the greatest emotion power is through everything they don’t actually say but rather in the ways they move across the screen and bounce off of one another.
Unfortunately though, these performances and the way the film looks weren’t quite enough to pull into the
story itself. Perhaps it was that too little was known about the Survivalist’s circumstances or that the moments when there was dialogue hardly opened the story up much more and this made The Survivalist difficult to want to see out to the end – ultimately a film like this is asking for the audience to care about the endgame of the characters and their survival is the key, but if not enough reasons are given about why these characters are important, it doesn’t pull the audience through to the end.
Instead, it could be argued that The Survivalist was bleak and at points, boring. It is certainly an achievement to create this world but it doesn’t seem to go much deeper than that. Singleton clearly has a lot of talent up his sleeve and The Survivalist is a wonderful way to start off, but it just needed to go a little further and keep the pace a little quicker to make this writer invested in the story.