By SHAWN MACOMBER
Starring Lulu Antariksa, Colin O’Donoghue and Mimi Rogers
Written and directed by Josh Mendoza
Strike the Sun Entertainment/Gravitas Ventures
“It’s late. You should get some rest. It’s a long walk to my village.”
So says Peter (Colin O’Donoghue), an ostentatiously God-fearing stranger, to Anna (Lulu Antariksa), a young, recently orphaned woman who has welcomed him—perhaps against her better judgement—into the tiny, self-sufficient compound she calls home. The stars above and surrounding natural splendor are so emblematic of peace, it’s easy to forget the abode is situated upon a mostly postapocalyptic frontier rife with both monsters and men who may as well be monsters.
“I can take care of myself,” Anna tells Peter, and he replies, “I don’t doubt it. But no one should be alone.”
Though she hesitates, Anna—vulnerable in the wake of the loss of both her mother and brother—ultimately chooses to trust Peter. The rest of the exquisitely realized, equally harrowing and enlivening WHAT STILL REMAINS deals with the trials and tribulations she will face because of this one unguarded moment of misplaced trust. In other words, “No one should be alone” may be a nice sentiment in theory, but that doesn’t mean the company we choose to keep—or, alas, chooses to keep us—shouldn’t be weighed as part of the equation. To paraphrase PET SEMATARY’s Jud Crandall, sometimes alone is better.
The setup: Two decades ago, a virus tore through humanity, turning some into feral creatures and liberating others to surrender to their baser instincts amidst the lawlessness. Meanwhile, a handful of survivors caught between these two poles eke out what is essentially a hunter-gatherer existence. Enter Peter, who arrives at Anna’s gate quoting scripture, speaking of a village that’s a sort of neo-promised land, claiming to admire Anna’s strong-willed nature.
Once he has lured Anna away from her safe place into the beyond, however, the mask begins to slip: an edge to his voice, a cruelty to his gait. By the time she has reluctantly surrendered her weapons at the gate of the village, it quickly becomes apparent that Peter’s community promulgates a very different interpretation of the Christian religion than the one in which Anna was raised. (Tale as old as time, right?) She finds herself a prisoner, viewed by her new wards as a sort of cross between blacksmith and sex slave—not a very appealing role even by the low standards of a fallen civilization. The good news, if you want to elevate it so, is that a villager-vs.-berserker war is brewing, and the carnage might give Anna a sliver of a chance to escape.
Happily, WHAT STILL REMAINS has a helluva lot more going for it than a standout premise, however. First, it is gorgeously shot by Matthew Edwards, whose cinematography creates an important and interesting counterpoint to the ugliness that plays out. Second, writer/director Josh Mendoza, in his feature debut, not only displays a deft sense of pacing and characterization, but also proves himself extraordinarily adept at changing cinematic gears—his execution of scenes of kinetic violence is as on point as his rendering of more atmospheric and intimate scenes. Third, it has a powerhouse heroine in Antariksa, whose smoldering, affecting presence as Anna is as likely to make audiences tear up as it is to inspire them to thrust their fists in the air. O’Donoghue’s Peter is believable both as a ruggedly handsome hero and as a messianic psycho—no small feat. Mimi Rogers (Judith), Dohn Norwood (Ben) and Jeff Kober (Zack) all deliver wonderful supporting performances.
At its heart, WHAT STILL REMAINS is a film about what it takes to maintain a level of civilized thought and behavior when all the boundaries, rules and ethics go out the window—temptation and what it takes to resist it. That, unfortunately, makes it an evergreen tale, but it is sobering and thrilling to see such ideas and implications explored so seriously and with such panache.