ZFZPOSTER1433438299Despite a curious concept and a strong cast, the post-apocalyptic drama Z For Zachariah cannot overcome several problematic decisions by its filmmakers. Director Craig Zobel and screenwriter Nissar Modi have adapted Robert C. O’Brien’s posthumous 1974 novel, a story about a teenage girl surviving alone on an English farm spared nuclear annihilation because of its location in a valley. Then a stranger in a radiation suit appears. Stricken with radiation poisoning, she takes the man — a scientist — in and cares for him. The story becomes a weird post-nuclear metaphor for the Garden of Eden until the sexual tension turns into something decidedly more sinister.

The fear of nuclear war isn’t what it used to be when the novel was released, so Zobel and Modi have thrown in a third character, a second man, to explore something decidedly more primal. Margot Robbie plays the young woman, Ann Burden, though she is no longer a naive, skittish teen but a stronger-willed young woman who hangs much of her survival on Christian faith. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the interloper John Loomis, an engineer who has grown tired of hiding in a bomb shelter. About halfway through the film, after the two gain a sort of trust and friendly affection for one another, real tension arises when Caleb (Chris Pine) appears. He’s a blue-collar type whose charm, age and race seems the better fit for Ann. The threat goes three ways, in a simmering, subtle conflict of manners.


Unfortunately, it’s not enough to hold the concept together, as Zobel struggles to maintain the subtle tone necessary to explore the thin thread of social decorum in a post-society world. It’s either too subtle or too sloppy. The performers exude a sense of ambivalence to varying degrees. Ejiofer is the standout, transmitting the conflict within him with the most clarity. Pine does a fine job, too. He’s at times a grim and ominous presence. Robbie isn’t bad, but her character feels inconsistently drawn, either too meek or too independent, but most of the blame for that goes to the script and the dated story. It’s as if the filmmakers have hesitated to explore the woman’s psyche.

It could be the film is trying to be sly about the tension or maybe the script isn’t up to par to clearly present the subtle antagonism among this “society” based on a trio of people. Then there are the scenes that glaringly point to deficiencies in the writing. In one scene John spies on Ann through the site of a rifle, as she works a field of crops. It’s an unnerving moment that is quickly diffused soon after Ann returns, and he tells her it felt “weird” to point the firearm at her, and she explains, “It’s got a great scope.” It’s one of too many clunky occasions that undermine the mood the film strains to maintain. As overwrought as it sometimes feels, Heather McIntosh’s score does a more efficient job of controlling the film’s atmosphere.


Then there are a few silly details that even more harshly breaks the film’s suspension of disbelief. Early in the movie, Ann plays a 78 record on an old phonograph to sit down to eat a dinner she fancies up with candles. It’s presented as part of a montage to show her loneliness and boredom. But those records have a maximum run time of three and a half minutes, hardly the time needed to complete a leisurely dinner. But the worst of these sort of missteps is the presence of a dog that seems to be Ann’s only companion, until John arrives. Somewhere off camera, he just drops out of the narrative. Maybe I blinked and missed something, but the dog plays a big role in the book, and it seems the filmmakers just had enough of the dog and cut him out without a single reference. That’s just sloppy.

Speaking of cutting out, the film’s fatal mistake arrives at the end and how it handles the inevitable confrontation between the two men. I don’t usually point out gripes with a film’s ending, but there’s something fundamentally wrong with how Zobel chose to deal with resolving this conflict. It sanitizes the characters by keeping their ugliest acts off-screen. This is how you weaken the impact of a concept. Zobel fails to have it both ways: presenting characters with dark, primal sides while trying to make them sympathetic, which many filmmakers have done successfully (take Noah Baumbach, for instance). This is especially disappointing because Zobel is the director who went all out when he adapted a disturbing real-life story that explores the profundity of the dark limits of human behavior while implicating the audience in 2012’s Compliance, (Compliance reveals horrific dimensions of social behavior – a film review). He could have so easily achieved the same level of unease with this movie had he only not backed away from the abyss. It’s a shame to see Zobel blink.

Hans Morgenstern

Z For Zachariah runs 98 Minutes and is rated PG-13 (cursing, some light nudity and sexuality and the threat of violence). It opens exclusively in our Miami area at Sunset Place (put is also available on VOD) today, Aug. 28. Roadside Attractions provided all images in this post and an on-line screener link for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

Before any second of action starts in Compliance, director Craig Zobel wants to make sure the audience knows something. Prior to a bizarre, stomach-churning series of events in the back office of a fast food restaurant, the words “BASED ON TRUE EVENTS” fill the entire movie screen. Even after that preface, anyone attending the film with some sense will question why these characters behave as they do. Some might chalk it up to poor writing or weak character development. But, the truth is, Zobel seems to restrain himself from changing much of anything from the news reports that inspired this film. As writer at a TV news station, I have memories of the 2004 true story behind this film. It would be so easy to fall into a trap to try to make this movie a little more “believable” by softening the facts behind the story. Heck, Hollywood seemed to have done that for the recent fantastical horror story, the Possession. Look at the lesson in both reviews and box office returns (I’d suggest reading the eBay description of the item that inspired the film instead).

But Compliance has nothing to do with the supernatural, which adds to the horror of this movie of sexual assault by phone call. Zobel sets up the banal atmosphere of where the crime unfolds with snowy exteriors of suburbia. The manager of a fictitious fast food restaurant (Ann Dowd, who ingests a low-key pathos into her role) is chastised for letting bacon go to waste by a food delivery man on a Napoleon trip. Sandra takes the verbal abuse, including blue language, like a whipped dog.

When her younger assistant manager and crew of teenage slackers show up to work at the “ChickWich,” she transfers the chastising with meek authority. No one will fess up to leaving the freezer door open, which resulted in the spoiled bacon, as she sets up the discussion with that expectation. Sandra wants to exert authority over her people but earns no respect. She cannot resist inserting herself into a conversation when she overhears her assistant manager Marti (Ashlie Atkinson) and the cashier, 19-year-old Becky (Dreama Walker), chatting about Becky’s boyfriends. One boyfriend is boring Becky by continually sending her shirtless pictures over her cell phone. Sandra chimes in about how she’s hip to the “sexting.” She over-shares how her boyfriend, who she sure is about to propose, sends her naked pictures, too. The younger women roll their eyes as soon as Sandra turns her back. By this point in the film, the director has set up part of a perfect storm of personality conflicts.

As the film establishes the hustle of a fast food joint: the grease pits used to cook French fries, the paper-wrapped sandwiches and the hungry mouths they end up in, filling up the screen, the restaurant’s phone rings. Sandra picks up. The voice on the other end identifies himself as Officer Daniels (Pat Healy) and asks if she has a young girl working the register. “Becky?”

“Yes, Rebecca!” says the voice. More cutaways to the chaos of the restaurant and Becky, as this detective on the phone explains that Becky has been accused of stealing from a customer. The voice says the victim is present with him and the district’s general manager is on the other line. “Freddy?” says Sandra. “Yes, Fred!” It soon becomes apparent that distracted, impressionable people are being taken advantage of by a voice of perceived authority. When Sandra hands the phone to Becky, that disembodied voice of authority demands her respect. “I’m going to need you to address me as sir of officer,” he says when she gets defensive about the allegations.

I could go into the details, but if you have not read the news stories that inspired Compliance, you will be more impressed going into the movie blind. Do note that this is not a date movie, but may make a good group film, as you may feel inclined to talk out the trauma after the film. The horrors will not satisfy superficial gorehounds, as this is not one of those films, but horrors indeed unfold in that office, starting with a strip search. Some, especially women, might find events that unfold difficult to endure, and the film spends a long time in that office. The camera seems to float voyeuristically, always moving, almost leering over the proceedings, adding to the creepiness factor. But, go back to the title card that fills the opening shot, “BASED ON TRUE EVENTS.” This is a horror show into the limits of social dynamics, and the fact that this really happened should serve as a lesson in awareness of one’s own humanity.

Zobel knows he has a good story, and he respects it. Walker, whose famous today as the goody-goody roommate in the ABC sitcom “Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23” puts on a brave face throughout her character’s gradual downward spiral into degradation. The supporting cast members who each have a turn “guarding” her offer an array of reactions that will make one question what drives the core of a person to do what they do, some of whom seem to sleep walk through life. One of the more unsettling reactions has to be that of Marti who plays with her tongue ring as she watches Becky strip with a distant, voyeuristic apathy. Meanwhile, Sandra cries a single, silent tear as she follows the caller’s orders that she demand Becky remove everything.

The film does soften the blow to these events by eventually revealing the man on the other side of the line. It also feels inclined to end with a seemingly slapped on, unnecessary resolution. However, some in the audience might feel relief to have some “light” after the harrowing events in the ChickWich office. Besides, there is one more title card regarding the reality of these events to endure at the end of the film that packs a wallop of a reality check.

Hans Morgenstern


Compliance is Rated R (it earns it) and runs 95 minutes. It opens in the South Florida area theatrically beginning this Friday, Sept. 21, at many indie theaters:

Sept. 21:

O Cinema – Miami, FL
Bill Cosford Cinema  – Coral Gables, FL
Cinema Paradiso – Fort Lauderdale, FL

Sept. 27:

Miami Beach Cinematheque – Miami Beach, FL

If you live outside of South Florida, it could very well be playing in your area now, but there are also other playdates planned nationally throughout the year. A full schedule can be found on the film’s official website, here. The Miami Beach Cinematheque invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review.

(Copyright 2012 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)