Stephen Fingleton’s The Survivalist takes place sometime in a future where society has collapsed. The film opens with a chart demonstrating how overpopulation combined with the depletion of fossil fuels have contributed to a world where food is scarce and every man is out for himself. The film’s story focuses on the titular character, whose name is never mentioned, we only know that he’s the survivalist. He has his own little plot of land in the woods, hidden out of the way the best it can, and here is where most of the film takes place.
The survivalist lives off his land quite efficiently as the beginning of the film depicts his daily life. Every resource is used and nothing goes to waste, even down to using his own semen for fertilizing seeds and urine for watering plants. At night he pulls out old photos, briefly recalling old memories, only to throw them right into the fireplace in order to keep warm. The need to survive is more important than holding on to unnecessary things. This survival instinct is especially evident in a scene where he’s working in his garden and a hand comes out of nowhere to tap him on his shoulder. With his gun always on him, he whips around aiming the gun only to find nobody is there. Clearly a plant has just brushed his shoulder, but he’s always on edge that at anytime his existence will be threatened. It’s soon after that he wakes up one morning, hearing enough noise to know somebody is actually on his property, and finds an elderly woman with her daughter looking for food and shelter. And talk about feeling on edge, from this point onward, The Survivalist really makes you feel the tension.
I watched The Survivalist recently with the local film club I belong to at my nearby cinema. What interested me in seeing this was learning that Fingleton had provided specific instructions to the projectionists at the theater on how he wanted the sound to be set up. Here’s a filmmaker who wants his film to be experienced in a movie theater. As I got into the film, I found myself feeling more and more unsettled and anxious. What was interesting to me was not only seeing the characters in tense situations but to experience what they were feeling as well. After the survivalist reluctantly allows the mother and daughter to stay with him, there is constant mistrust between the three characters. The women quietly discuss killing the survivalist behind his back, knowing there isn’t enough food to sustain all three of them. With each scene, you never know what to expect. There’s hardly any musical score in the background, so most of background noises are the sounds the characters can hear (and what Fingleton wants you to hear). With the snap of a twig is it another person or just nature? I felt like I was there, with these characters, feeling their uneasiness. It made for a memorable viewing experience.
If you can catch The Survivalist in a movie theater then I would recommend that experience. Otherwise, watch it in a quiet setting, with volume turned up, and immerse yourself in this world.