Z for Zachariah Sundance Round-Up: Critics Love the Performances and Hate the Ending
The Sundance dystopian film Z for Zachariah follows a trio of survivors (played by Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine, the only three actors to appear in the movie) of a nuclear apocalypse who find themselves in a highly charged and potentially disastrous love triangle. Despite the potentially soap operatic nature of this premise, early buzz was extremely positive as a result of the caliber of the cast and the previous work of director Craig Zobel, who was the helmer behind acclaimed films Great World of Sound and Compliance.
Following its highly anticipated premiere this weekend, it seems that the buzz surrounding the film was earned, but with more caveats than some were expecting. Many of the reviews almost read like the same person wrote all of them: the performances are amazing, the first half of the film is nearly perfect with spot-on character development, and then it stumbles with the addition of Chris Pine's characters and builds to an inane, disappointing ending. But not only were there a few staunch defenders of the ending, but even among those who hated the last act, the vast majority of the reviews deemed the film to be well-made overall.
Here are the most common threads running through the early reviews, as well as the few dissenters:
It's more character study than sci-fi
"A humanistic drama... the indie filmmaker uses what sounds like sci-fi-ish conceits for a story that is anything but." - Indiewire
"Other than the overall setting of a world with few survivors, Z for Zachariah has a lot more in common with a movie like The Road than say The Omega Man, since it's more of a character drama than science fiction despite that setting." - Coming Soon
The performances are remarkable, particularly from Margot Robbie and Chiwetel Ejiofor
"Margot Robbie was mighty impressive in Scorsese's movie and she really proves herself to be the real deal with her performance as Anne, pulling off an extremely convincing portrayal of her innocence. The other two actors are equally good and the terrific overall performances confirm Zobel's talents for bringing out the best in his actors." - Coming Soon
"The love-triangle is well performed - Ejiofor and Robbie are particularly convincing as the hesitant couple whose life has been upended by a charming stranger." - Indiewire
"If there was any question at this point, Margot Robbie's work here establishes her as one of the very best actresses in her age range today. I've had at least four conversations tonight with people who loved her in this and had absolutely no idea she was the same actress who played The Duchess in 'Wolf Of Wall Street.'... Chiwetel Ejiofor is always good, but... it's obvious that he is giving this one everything he's got... Pine is a fascinating snake in the garden, gently manipulating both Loomis and Annie, and he uses his innate charm as a weapon here." - Hitfix
"None of this would work without some supremely capable performers, and Zobel has assembled a trio that are equal to the task. Ejiofor has the greatest range of emotion in the piece, and he plays Loomis with a grace and sophistication that's hardly a surprise at this point to anyone paying attention over the last several years... Ann is played by Margo Robbie, and does so with a subtlety and effectiveness that's to be applauded. It wasn't until the film was over I realized she was the same person who helped make Wolf of Wall street so raw and effective, and it's a credit to her range and skill that she becomes completely subsumed in this role in a way that it's almost impossible to reconcile the same person playing both parts. Finally, there's Chris Pine, who is perfectly cast in his role, one that's perhaps slightly underwritten compared to the others, but nonetheless is imbued with some delightful moments." - Twitchfilm
But the chemistry between the actors is questionable
"The film remains strangely inert, and the romantic triangle at the story's center never gives off any real passion or heat (pre-Sundance rumors to the contrary)." - Variety
"The effectiveness of the piece, especially in its final half, is almost entirely dependent upon subtext, mutual suspicions, underlying tensions, sexual tipping points, self-control and all manner of other human impulses that lie just beneath the surface. Unfortunately, screenwriter Nissar Modi and director Zobel doesn't manage to draw these out in a palpable way-where is Harold Pinter when you need him?-so that the drama really flattens out during the climactic stretch on its way to a very ho-hum conclusion. Where the blame for this truly lies is difficult to gauge, but another factor here is cast chemistry; on a moment-to-moment basis, the three actors seem entirely engaged with their roles, but the electric currents between them are not strong and constant." - Hollywood Reporter
The first half of the film is note-perfect
"When it focuses on the fraught interplay between Anne and John, Z for Zachariah is wonderful; I could have watched these small human moments, alternately tense and tender, between Ejiofor and Robbie forever." - Vulture
"For the first half of the film, the focus is entirely on the relationship between Loomis and Annie, and both of the actors are exceptional... There is a slowly-developing bond between them that doesn't play as a cliched romance." - Hitfix
"'Z For Zachariah' is a commendable, quietly hushed and intimate drama about people that feels note-perfect for at least half the picture... Easily Zobel's most accomplished work with a self-assured simplicity that marks every frame, 'Z For Zachariah' is nevertheless still uneven. Its craft can be impressive: Zobel's film possesses a searing, slow burn tone that's beautifully controlled. The movie is admirably patient and gives breathing room and space for these relationships to bloom believably and organically." - Indiewire
The second half of the film doesn't live up to the promise of the first half
"The love triangle that follows interrupts more than John and Anne's lives; it turns a moody, absorbing portrait of a compromised relationship into something more schematic and melodramatic... The descent into a tepid thriller of sexual jealousy slowly negates the abstract, almost metaphorical quality of this film - and it ultimately undoes the spell cast by that mesmerizing first half." - Vulture
"The arrival of Caleb telegraphs much of the movie's intentions even though it's largely nuanced. One could subtitle the 'Zachariah' 'Two's Company, Three's A Crowd,' and you'd essentially get the gist. As a drama that's an exploration of human nature and the impulses between women and men, it's clear where the narrative is heading and its inevitability isn't anywhere near as striking as the film believes it is... Zobel stumbles in the all-too foreseeable final act... Strangely in these last few minutes, in a movie that has patiently observed its protagonists, somehow these crucial narrative moments are rushed through and not quite convincing, which leaves a confused sensation for what suddenly has gone amiss. There's also an odd sense of self-satisfaction about the film's would-be profound ending. That fact that the conclusion is actually ho-hum and lifeless also offers a sour flavor." - Indiewire
In defense of that ending...
"Judging by some of the conversations overheard outside the theater, "Z For Zachariah" may be too subtle for people who want big giant fireworks from the end of the world. The last ten minutes of the film are like a velvet sledgehammer, so subtle you might miss it, and so painful that it's hard to shake. Zobel works magic as a minimalist, and he knows that there is no special effect that can equal what happens when you're in close on a great actor who has something great to play. The film winds down quietly, but there are huge, permanent things happening just below the surface.
"Ultimately, there's a delicacy to Zobel's approach that keeps this from feeling like a slam-dunk. It's easy to walk out of a film at Sundance like, say, 'Whiplash,' where you're basically floating because of the way things wrap up, and declare the entire film amazing. It's harder when you end on a quiet note, and Zobel refuses to serve things up easily. Still, I think this one's going to linger." - Hitfix
"We're left with a poetic conclusion that might leave some audiences cold. For me, however, this is a film of such power and wit that I couldn't help but being captivated by it." - Twitchfilm
"There is a lot of ambiguity in the last act about what exactly happens and how you're supposed to feel about it, but it's the type of film one could definitely watch again in order to catch some of its many smaller nuances." - Coming Soon
The film's philosophical reach is just out of its grasp
"What begins as a deeply philosophical survivors' story eventually deflates into a soap opera-ish love triangle. While these story points are perhaps the easiest to relate to, they ultimately aren't that interesting." - The Guardian
"Faith plays a large part in the film, both allegorically and literally... And yet with all the biblical names, the church that acts as a source of restoration and the idea of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden being disrupted by the handsome devil, the archetypes get to be a bit much even if they're not overtly drawn." - Indiewire
"'Z for Zachariah'... doesn't lack for provocative ideas, though it never digs quite deep enough into any of them." - Variety
But there were a few dissenters on this point as well:
"The symbolism the storyline plays with is sometimes arch, but that plays into the films narrative strengths. There are subtle echoes in the narrative to Children of Men, another near-future thinkpiece that mixes deep ideas within the context of an accessible genre film." - Twitchfilm
It's beautifully shot
"Luminously shot by Tim Orr (David Gordon Green's longtime DP), "Z For Zachariah" is beautiful to look at. The distinguishing high-contrast, almost Instagram-filter looks at the ravaged towns below the mountains, next to the warmer hue of the trio's farm of salvation." - Indiewire
The score is great, but overplays its hand
"Heather McIntosh... creates a gorgeous score that brings so much to the film's quiet tone." - Coming Soon
"While the movie features an elegant score by Heather McIntosh, the music occasionally overplays its hand in a few crucial moments and sometimes even strains to push emotions that haven't been earned yet." - Indiewire
"Heather McIntosh's score is the perfect emotional counterpoint to Tim Orr's photography, which manages to capture both the idyllic nature of the valley and the way something darker slowly seeps in." - Hitfix
"Heather McIntosh's score is unusual and effective, if perhaps ultimately overused." - Hollywood Reporter
The most curious part of the movie
Hollywood reporter had this funny aside: "Far more curious is the credit for three casting directors on the film that employed just three actors. What did they all do, exactly?" I guess they just took on one character each?
Z for Zachariah has been picked up for distribution by Lionsgate and will be released later this year.