George Hemington, Contributor.
Stephen Fingleton’s The Survivalist, featuring three highly-crafted stressfully reserved and tense performances from its only three prominent actors, is a genuine moral art film that turns properly upon more boring and predictable media. But it does this well, without the over-popular media trope of ‘subverting’ media tropes.
The action that drives the plot in this film is without exception never original. Almost every scene in The Survivalist, given a suitable verbal register, could have been lifted from the “X Adventure” books I read as a child, or from the kind of post-apocalyptic YA fiction currently popular with commuters and indigent (optimism is a virtue) literary bloggers who aim at commuters. Nonetheless since The Survivalist is outside the action genre and inside the art sphere none of those tropes have been set up so as to contribute to the film in the way an audience will have become accustomed to expect. In other words it apes genre, plays at being a ‘movie’, and consequently deceives and draws the eye and ear towards something else entirely. Fingleton has tellingly said his hope for the movie is as a televisual artifact, something teenagers stumble upon on late night Channel 4.
The populist spin on the film by reviewers and by the film’s own poster is definitively unwarranted. Marketed as “Mad Max in the countryside” we instead get Margaret Atwood fighting over a screenplay with Andrei Tarkovsky, if Tarkovsky were still alive and making films for a culturally capitalist art industry. There is the teenager with her unconquerable inner strength and there is the strongman who may or may not open his heart, and there are the shocking things that have to happen to each of them at least once (and in a way that draws its depiction’s distance from Western life as darkly as possible on film). But this is all conveyed in long awkward takes; there is uncomfortably real and brutal violence with no foreshadowing, no anticipation and no pay-off – a treacle ocean of unspoken and barely acknowledged grief. Nobody behind the camera seems even to be that bothered who you root for, which is really the point, and this has a presumably expected disorienting effect on a viewer trained with film tropes for many years to demand a pay-off to their execution.
This is all representative of a clean bridging of “high” and “low” culture the kind of which was much talked about in the 1970s and 1980s. One would be loath to embrace the kind of determination which say that this is undeniably A Good Thing, the kind of thing that artists should be doing, since it has been the dominant project of art media for some decades now with many much lesser successes than herein. To reinforce a popular media discourse is a boring business anyway, and most importantly there is nothing tongue-in-cheek about The Survivalist, which, depressingly, so much high-low art acculturation is. On top of all of the above, it is a deadly serious film, and that is its benefit.