The Last Survivors
It’s interesting that teenagers and post-apocalyptic worlds fit so well together. Even Mad Max: Fury Road had a youngish cast. Perhaps there really is no country for old men. The Last Survivors (formerly titled The Well) is a post-apocalyptic film that tells a simple story convincingly, especially considering its director, Thomas S. Hammock, has up until now focused his career on production design. Taking place in a future world of water-depleted desperation, the film keeps its focus narrow, depicting life in the now desert wasteland of the Oregon Valley without trying to explain the world or how any of this came to pass. It’s a very present film, focusing on the immediate struggles of its quiet characters.
Kendal (Haley Lu Richardson) is a smart and self-sufficient survivor during these dangerous times. Living at what used to be a home for orphaned youth with another survivor, Dean (Twilight‘s Booboo Stewart), she discretely keeps the two of them alive off of water from their hidden well. During the day Kendal slinks around the sun-streaked arid land in search of abandoned cars, rummaging through their parts for a specific piece that will work on the non-functioning airplane they hope to use to escape this place. Dean, who is starting to look sickly, spends nights listening to the old two-way radio the neighboring farms use to keep each other informed. One night a neighbor says there are people outside her house, and her fright suggests there is more to fear in the desert than dehydration. Kendal grabs her trusty shotgun and heads off into the night. A man named Carson (John Gries) has been offering his help to those left in the valley who want to come out of hiding, but as she sneaks around the dark farm, Kendal sees that Carson, along with his daughter and the sadistic priestly looking lackey who never leave his side, clearly have selfish intentions for the land (and water) of the farmers. Kendal barely escapes with her life, the other farm folk not so lucky.
Setting a jumpy atmosphere as it transitions between dark indoor and night scenes and blindingly bright outdoor desert scenes, the film keeps up great tension. Hammock is smart to keep his plot simple, focusing on survival and the simple daily threats that Kendal must face. Richardson carries the film expertly, showing both courage and fear to round Kendal out as a believable and likable hero. The film does falter somewhat in providing proper motivation for its side characters. Kendal and Dean, forced to maintain their daily survival in hiding mode as they work toward their goal of flying away, do their small part to help others as available. A child, Alby (Max Charles), presumably also from the home, lives in a neighboring barn, refusing to join Kendal and Dean but accepting the daily rations she brings him.
Gabriel (another Twilight alum, Michael Welch), part of a neighboring farm, harbors feelings for Kendal yet inexplicably accepts his place in Carson’s army of burlap clad drones after his family ill-advisedly seeks Carson’s help. Which is another small hiccup—Kendal does a lot of hiding throughout the film doing a good job of staying alive, but isn’t especially helpful in keeping those around her alive, especially in warning others of Carson’s obvious maliciousness. It takes a lot for her to finally fight back in the end, though when she does it’s a well-crafted standoff. Most puzzling, though, is that Carson himself seems to lack compelling causation. Granted, his greed for water, the highest commodity, is evident, but his sadistic nature isn’t as clearly explained. Everything he does, he claims to do for his daughter, but the chemistry between them is weak.
While it’s easy to get caught up in the details (for one, Kendal’s hair is entirely too perfect considering showers are definitely not an option in a world without water), the overall picture Hammond paints is pretty remarkable for a first-time director. With the feel of a well-paced Western, The Last Survivors stands out, never sinking to the theatrics of other post-apocalyptic films.
A version of this review ran as part of our 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival coverage. The Last Survivors is available August 4, 2015 on VOD, DVD & Blu-Ray.