Monica Keena stars as Elizabeth and Andre Royo as Rob in "Aftermath," an RLJ/Image Entertainment release.
Sometimes, it's difficult to recommend a movie that - by design - is viciously disheartening and disturbing.
"Aftermath," a brutal end-of-the-world thriller directed by Peter Engert, is such a film: It's bleak, depressing and discouraging - but as a poignant elegy for post-apocalyptic civilization, it is powerfully effective.
Those expecting traditional horror will likely find "Aftermath" disappointing. This dreary and desolate vision of the future boasts no zombies, no mobs of bloodthirsty mutants, and no 1950s-style irradiated monstrosities shambling across cityscapes toppling buildings and terrifying the masses. No, this is a simple story of survival and endurance following a global catastrophe, focusing on a small group of strangers brought together by circumstance beyond their control.
The film opens with snippets of radio news broadcasts, with disembodied voices reporting current events that - ominously - could be taken from tomorrow's headlines. The world is a tinderbox waiting for a spark. Conflicts in all corners of the globe escalate dramatically. Ordinary citizens - including a doctor named Hunter - seem far removed from the unfolding events and are shocked when, with alarming swiftness, a nuclear holocaust obliterates most of society.
The bombs fall in the first few minutes of the movie: The bulk of the story examines how nine desperate strangers cope with the situation.
The characters find themselves clinging to life in a farmhouse cellar. Outside, radioactive fallout rains down from the sooty heavens. Faced with poisonous air, radiation, dwindling food and water stocks and injuries made critical by lack of medical supplies, the group also must deal with personality conflicts, discord, depression and mental illness.
As weeks go by, another threat looms: Other refugees begin to congregate outside the farmhouse, driven to near madness by radiation sickness and trauma. They are clearly prepared to kill for a scrap of food or a few drops of water.
Though lacking in originality, "Aftermath" is remarkably well constructed. Engert lets the camera capture the extreme anxiety, the hopelessness and the bareness. Surprisingly, though, even in a hopeless situation, the characters develop a sense of tribal solidarity over time that is somehow encouraging.
Make no mistake: That optimism is fleeting. The film is a slow-boil descent into inescapable hell, punctuated with several solid performances.
CJ Thomason stars as Hunter, a doctor caught far from home when the end comes. Hunter reluctantly assumes a leadership role within the group. Initially, he is at odds with Edward Furlong's character, Brad, a local resident presented as quick-tempered and hostile. Thomason does a remarkable job conveying Hunter's dilemma: The doctor increasingly senses the group's inevitable fate but strives to remain positive. He gradually relinquishes aspects of his hardwired morality as he accepts the end of civilization.
Furlong's character undergoes an equally compelling transformation. Brad comes to express both his remorse over his own ethically dubious actions and shame for the fate of all humanity. Furlong manages to make this conversion so immaculately that the viewer comes to completely empathize with a character that originally seemed the most odious.
Other excellent performances are turned in by Andre Royo as Rob, Christine Kelly as Angie, Ross Britz as Jonathan, Monica Keena as Elizabeth, Jessie Rusu as Jennifer, John Kennon Kepper as Satchel and Tody Bernard as Wendell.
The film's only real weakness is an unnecessarily gratuitous battle royale that comes near the end, pitting the surviving protagonists against scavenging thugs that look a bit too much like rejects from the gang of motorcycle-riding vandals led The Humungus in "The Road Warrior." It is a oddly sensational climax to an otherwise understated drama. The aftermath of the confrontation, however, is rendered subtly - its finality both haunting and heartbreaking.
"Aftermath" evokes another film depicting the horrors of nuclear war. Like the 1984 British made-for-television docudrama "Threads," the film is both unsettling and numbing. Tragically, the film's effectiveness may be lit in its correlation with the current state of global affairs.
"Aftermath" is currently playing in theaters and is available on VOD and iTUNES. Locally, the film is being shown at AMC Veterans 24, 9302 Anderson Road, Tampa.