Director Stephen Fingleton Starring Martin McCann, Olwen Fouere, Mia Goth Release Date 12th February
At the 2015 London Film Festival, a director mused to me his distaste of film being the only art form where the titles of pieces are expected to be literal. It had never occurred to me before, but the truth of it is now a continual impending distraction when I hear the names of films for the first time. It shaped my first impression of Stephen Fingleton’s feature debut THE SURVIVALIST: what a literal, basic name.
But it turns out that is the point. Fingleton takes us back to basics in a story of survival that serves to highlight the irrepressible nature of humans in their need for company. To match its raw subject, the filmmaking is devoid of self indulgence: the characters can’t afford to address things like emotion or passion, so neither does the camera. The content is cradled so harmoniously by the form that when glimmers of these indulgences do appear, they are like golden streaks of light breaking through the forest’s canopy.
‘The Survivalist’ (Martin McCann) is warding off starvation and the threat of hungry strangers in an apocalyptic world. In the forest he maintains his modest farm with nothing for company but a shotgun and some old photographs, destined to become kindling as need dictates. But his self-made existence is punctured one day by a woman (Olwen Fouere) and her teenage daughter (Mia Goth) who find they can trade for room and board with the only currency left worth anything to him: female company. His survival is threatened not only by the extra mouths to feed but the exposure of his loneliness – for who can defer the crippling effects of isolation forever?
Fingleton, accomplished director of various macabre shorts up until now, has made a survival thriller that has more in common with the silent film era than, say, big January blockbuster THE REVENANT. It has that same wonderment of the raw image that the very first films did. At no point is the story treated as a stripper’s pole around which attention can be vulgarly stolen by gore pornography and visceral shocks. The sting of these characters’ vulnerability to the elements is felt, but never imposed.
It is apt that in a world where the maintenance of a blackberry bush can mean the difference between life and death, even the smallest of symbols and hand gestures, a lingering look or a fingered object, mean everything to the story. Every moment matters and influences the next, like a makeshift sanitary towel made from a sock soaked in blood that is suddenly clean, or an unknown chunky footprint in the mud. Danger looms, but there’s so much beauty in the fragility of a kill-or-be-killed world, where only the essential or the extraordinary rises to the surface.
For those exasperated by visceral filmmaking that shows no restraint and leaves no space for organic reactions, THE SURVIVALIST will be as invigorating as showering under a waterfall.
The Final Word: THE REVENANT with narrative knobs on