Synopsis – After an epidemic spread all over Australia, a father searches for someone willing to protect his daughter.
My Take – Yet another day, yet another zombie film has released. When it comes to zombie films, I generally avoid them like the plague they are often based on, not because the scare me, but because I’ve gotten bored by the whole concept. However, like I mentioned in my review of the film The Cured, there are still some filmmakers out there who are still willing to put in a slightly different twist on the subject matter, and this one seemed like one of those. While the trailer doesn’t really make it stand out from any other indie epidemic survival films that have been released in the last 5 years, the presence of Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Sherlock) somehow peeked my interest. Thankfully, this carefully shot and leisurely paced thriller that released on Netflix, is also a refreshingly different zombie film, most importantly at times doesn’t even feel like it should be grouped in that category of films.
First brought to life in 2013 as a short film, this feature debut of directors Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling, does manage to distinguish itself from many of its forebears by successfully localizing the threat of a viral outbreak to the lead’s traumatic predicament in a rather emotional journey. Set in the near future, where most of the population has been eradicated by a deadly plague, the story follows Andy Rose (Martin Freeman), who along with his wife Kay Caine (Susie Porter) and their infant daughter Rosie are among the few survivors. Taking refuge in a somewhat functional boat, floating down a nameless river with not much goal but to survive before the real help comes in.
However, when Kay ends up being bitten by an infected during a supply expedition in an abandoned sailboat, things begin to fall apart. With the timer set to 48 hours, before Kay fully converts and a stimulant to help maintain cognition and body function within that period, the Andy decides to give his wife a chance by taking her to the nearest medical facility before he is forced to use the hydraulic pressure needle to finally end her suffering. But when Kay passes away after infecting Andy, he begins a time-bound search for a safe place with caring people who will raise his one-year-old baby. On his journey he comes across many people once which includes, Thoomi (Simone Landers), an Aboriginal girl, who has run away from her family and tribe to tend to her zombified father, whom she believes will somehow return to normal.
From here we’re swept up in a seemingly endless tailwind of anxiety, heightened by Freeman’s heartbreaking performance as a father who must forgo his own grief and fear to safeguard his daughter’s passage. Though the opening image of their boat wading through peaceful waters of Australia might call to mind a tourism commercial, their lives are far from idyllic. A violent pandemic, the exact scope of which is never explained or discussed in true The Road fashion, has made much of the Outback unlivable, and Andy is not on vacation or enjoying an early retirement, he’s just surviving. While its premise is no doubt in line with the genre as its features a bleak post-apocalyptic world where the majority of the world (or Australian outback at least) is ravaged by a vicious plague that turns humans into the living dead, it’s the characters in question that make this film so different. This is a dark tale and at times there seems to be little room for redemption or hope, parts of it bring to mind The Mist and The Walking Dead, in theme at least. It may be the end for one culture but the revival of another or it may be a synthesis of both.
However, this is the kind of film that never lets up, and is a tough watch from the start, and it only gets tougher to watch the more you watch it. I loved how the film consistently kept me on my toes, and the lack of a score made the film feel more personal and intimate and the editing superb. Instead of front-loading the story with exposition, the film’s writer Ramke uses a handful of brief encounters to give us a sense of how dire the situation is. During their exploration they come across Vic (Anthony Hayes) who resides in a fenced-off enclave with his “wife” Lorraine Cassidy (Caren Pistorius), and traps uninfected individuals (mostly aboriginals) in cages as zombie bait so that he can shoot down zombies and steal their valuables. A clear believer in the maxim of “make hay while the sun shines”, Vic believes that one day order will be restored and whoever still controls resources like fuel and gems and money will emerge on top of the new world order. But, amidst nearly relentless peril, both directors manage to carve out some deeply tender moments, putting an intriguing spin on the zombie genre at the same time, especially by dealing with the scale of their canvas remarkably well.
Yes, the zombies aren’t too common or seen that frequently throughout the film, and the film is not particularly scary and has few scenes which are intended to offer up any fright. But when they show up, it’s a stark reminder of how badly the infection has ravaged the lands, while the bleakness and desperation that the characters face are equally unnerving and serves only to heighten how much you feel for its characters and their unfortunate plight. You might not get jump scares, but there is nothing more heart-wrenching than seeing a father wrestle with the decision over whether or not to kill his family and himself before the virus takes its hold. They also make some smart choices in adapting their own work — the twists on zombie mythology, like having the undead burrow their heads in the sand. Also notable is the inclusion of aboriginal characters, who are usually marginalized from mainstream Australian cinema but make up an important part of this narrative.
It’s interesting to see how these two very different people groups (the urbanized, typically white Australians and the native Aboriginals) deal with the crisis in their own, very different, ways. While the “civilized” folk either isolate themselves for security or try and set up tiny autocracies from whence they go out to scavenge resources to hoard, their native “uncultured” compatriots form hunting parties to go out and wipe out the zombies and cleanse their land of the infection. The film also gets a little crazy towards the end as what initially appears to be scarce and barren landscape seems to have an increasing number of zombies and people in the area. It’s a film that thrives on less is more and that feeling of emptiness, so trying to throw more at our leads, however minor it might seem, is a step in the wrong direction. While these elements don’t help with the cohesion of the basic narrative, directors Ramke and Howling at least keep the story grounded in emotion, and you never stop feeling for Andy and his struggle for his daughter’s safety. The dramatic natural landscape of Australia also has a large role here, providing a stunning visual backdrop to an otherwise jaded tale. Andy and Rosie, along with the few other survivors, navigate past endless scrub lands, rocky monoliths jutting randomly out of the ground, and turgid brown rivulets as well as swiftly-flowing silvery streams, all punctuated by stretches of sandy desert that sullenly glow red under a harsh and unforgiving sun. On the other hand, the writing is not always on point.
Especially the extremely cheesy ending, that feels out of place given the serious tone of the rest of film. The film goes out of its way to create human antagonist whose motivations and behaviors are particularly poor and erratic. This side part of the story only serves to distract you from the concern that there is a baby that needs to find a home and person that is trying to fight off a virus. While it does help extend the story a little, it removes some of the tension that the film has so superbly built up to at this point and is a bit of a letdown. However, the best decision here was to cast Martin Freeman. Freeman, who is proving to be one of the most underrated actors of his generation, is astonishingly affecting performance here. Effortlessly subtle and deeply emotional, Freeman is the film’s beating heart through and through. Similarly, Simone Landers, the actress who plays Andy’s eventual Aboriginal traveling companion Thoomi, manages to keep the story grounded with a subtle, winning performance. The friendship that emerges between her and Andy, one that grows out of being chained together by a lunatic isolationist, becomes the heart of the story almost by default. In supporting roles, Susie Porter, Kris McQuade, Caren Pistorius, Natasha Wanganeen and David Gulpilil. On the whole, ‘Cargo’ offers yet another unique take on the zombie genre, which despite suffering from some flaws, remains compelling and worthwhile due to its tense atmosphere, well-written plot and breathtaking cinematography.
Rated – R
Run Time – 105 minutes