High-mindedness absorbingly clashes with baser impulse and reason grapples with faith in “Z for Zachariah,” a low-fi, three-character apocalyptic tale featuring Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Chris Pine. There’s intelligently played drama all around in this loose, mature adaptation of Robert C. O’Brien’s ’70s young-adult novel, even if indie director Craig Zobel (“Compliance”) has an elliptical style that’s slightly unfulfilling at points.
Robbie effortlessly stows her sex-bomb persona from “Focus” and “The Wolf of Wall Street” in playing Ann, a gentle farm girl whose bucolic home has escaped the radiation unleashed by some unspecified doomsday event. Her solitary existence is shaken up by the arrival of Loomis (Ejiofor), a stir-crazy scientist who happens by in a biohazard suit and immediately falls ill.
As Ann nurses Loomis back to health, the two form a tentative bond. He helps her to fix a gas pump and a tractor, but also bristles at her God-fearing hesitance to tear down a family chapel and use the wood for a power-generating water wheel. He’s respectful, and takes the chivalrous route when she gets drunk one night. But he’s also clearly got procreation on the brain, and does some drunken pawing of his own, not prettily. (It’s all a departure from the novel, which only gets into straight interloper tension. There’s also a flashback to young Ann’s A-to-Z read on scripture: If Adam was the first man, Zachariah must be the last.)
Enter one more not-quite-sole survivor, rugged coal miner Caleb (Pine). Roll with the hunky casting, and the character is as skillfully ambiguous, in his way, as Loomis is. Caleb seems genuinely grateful for the help his hosts give him, and they can relate to his suppressed feelings of despair and guilt. But there’s also a vibe that he harbors smug alpha-dog thoughts of shoving Loomis aside. Why is Ann persuaded by Caleb’s churchly talk justifying the water wheel? Is she simply responding to a kindred spirit, or being cagily seduced?
Ejiofor’s rational man isn’t so emotionally disciplined that he won’t sink to ugly, jealous spitefulness as Caleb continues to stick around. (How far he’ll lower himself is one of the elliptical bits.) And when Robbie’s guileless good girl struggles to explain some of her behavior, we sympathize. Far from contrived, the triangle that “Zachariah” sketches among the last three folks on earth is all too human.
Z FOR ZACHARIAH
Directed by Craig Zobel. Written by Nissar Modi, based on the novel by Robert C. O’Brien. Starring Margot Robbie, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Chris Pine.
At West Newton, Danvers. 95 minutes. PG-13 (a scene of sexuality, partial nudity, and brief strong language).
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