2015 Film Essays

His Blazing Automatics: You and Me and the Devil Makes Three – The Religious Allegory of Craig Zobel’s ‘Z for Zachariah’

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Craig Zobel’s latest film, Z for Zachariah, revolves around Ann (Margot Robbie), a young woman who has survived a nuclear apocalypse by living in her family’s farm in a mountain range, somehow unaffected by the radiation killing the rest of the world. One day she finds a scientist named John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he is showering in an infected waterfall. Ann takes him in and nurses him back to health, thus a romance and dependency develops between the two. This peace is disturbed when another man, a miner by the name of Caleb (Chris Pine), arrives and joins them — coming between their romance and dynamic.

Z for Zachariah has the trappings of a Young Adult romance novel, and it certainly doesn’t help that the cast is impossibly good looking even at their most uglied up, but there’s something much more interesting going on underneath the surface. Zobel is far more interested in simple human interaction and isolation than just romance and sexuality, and he uses the setup to create a discussion about science and faith.

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The film sets itself up as an Adam and Eve tale with John and Ann as possibly the only surviving humans, and the mountain region they live in serves as an Eden in this radiated wasteland of middle America. It’s not the religious metaphors that make the film interesting, but what Zobel does with the religious motifs and iconography. Z for Zachariah almost functions as a conversation between science and religion, and to what degrees the two can coexist. It’s a spiritual film about a world that has no application for religion anymore. It does draw on religion, though, in its undertones and allegories.

Caleb is the likely snake in this Adam and Eve formula, yet John has his temptation over Ann as well. They both wear on her to varying degrees and in different manners. The great thing about Pine’s performance is that he strides the line between malicious intent and good nature in his interactions with John and Ann. He’s both dangerous and charismatic without letting the scale tip too far.

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John and Ann have conflicting beliefs at their base — John trusts science, Ann trusts faith — but neither is going to push it on the other. Their relationship is strained to begin with, as they are forced to live with each other. Ann will continue to pray before each meal and play the church organ in her spare time, and John won’t join her in either activity — and nothing will be said about it. If not talking about their oppositional core beliefs is what it takes to get by, then so be it. Eventually, one is going to have to win out over the other in order for progress to take place in the efforts to rebuild.

When John figures out they can build a mill at the waterfall to generate power, he decides they’ll need to strip the local church for wood. Ann is resistant to this. Previous shots have her playing the church organ and often spending time there to reflect. She reveals that her father had built the church and preached there each week. John pitches it to her that God, or her father, put the church there in order for them to strip it to get electricity. When Caleb enters the picture, he helps pressure Ann to relent so they can build the mill. The stripping of the church is her wavering faith literalized. Zobel presents human and industrial progress as the result of the clash between science and faith, and that it can never be as simple as either/or with the two survivors.

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Without spoiling too much, the fall of man occurs in Zobel’s Adam and Eve tale. Guilt springs and spreads to John and Ann while threatening to destroy their cohabitation. Earlier in the film, Caleb tells Ann that the church wasn’t itself holy, but what she brought into the structure made it holy. He tells her that such a kind of holy is the kind that doesn’t leave a place. In the film’s final scene, Ann sits down to play the organ that has been moved to the barn. John walks in and sits down to listen to her play for the first time since he arrived. He interlocks his fingers so his hands are at a prayer position. This house is now holy once again. The electricity will allow them to live with each other, but their faith might allow them to live with themselves.

His Blazing Automatics is a weekly column by Dylan Moses Griffin, who has been a cinephile for as long as he can remember. His favorite film is Taxi Driver, and he reads the works of Roger Ebert like it’s scripture. If you want, he will talk to you for 30 minutes about the chronologically weird/amazing Fast and Furious franchise.

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