TL;DR – A beautiful, haunting, and often brutal look at what we do for those we love.
Post-Credit Scene – There is no end-credit scene
There was a time not that long ago where zombies were this interesting subset of the horror genre. Now in a world where every second video game has them as an enemy and we have seen nearly every possible permutation of it on the big and small screen, it honestly feels like we have become saturated with the living dead. Now frankly, this is a great pity because out there in the world of media there are still very powerful works of art being made that deals with these issues, like The Last of Us and Train to Busan. Well, today we are looking at a film that is joining these lofty heights with Cargo.
So to set the scene, it is in the near future in the Australian countryside and we zoom in on Andy (Martin Freeman), Kay (Susie Porter) and their baby girl Rosie (Lily Anne McPherson-Dobbins, Marlee Jane McPherson-Dobbins, Finlay Sjoberg, Nova Sjoberg) as they meander down a river in a houseboat. It is an idyllic scene bar for a couple of things that make you realise that something is very wrong. Across the boat, there are cans set up to let them know if something is trying to get on board, and as they pass a campsite on the side of the river they are warned off with a gun. We quickly discover there has been some kind of contagion released in Australia (well at least Australia but maybe worldwide) that once you are bitten you have only 48 hours before you turn into one of the monsters. The family was running out of food when they stumbled across a wrecked yacht, slipping on board while everyone was asleep Andy was able to scrounge up enough food to get them to the military base but before he could explore more he hears a noise from the sleeping cabin. Back on the boat it was all good news, telling his wife that there was no danger (when there was) so while he was asleep Kay went over to see if there was a shaving razor on board and gets bitten, and the 48-hour countdown starts.
We’ll take a deep dive into the themes of the film in a moment but the first thing I want to talk about is how beautifully the film is shot. One of the highlights of the film is that it is almost all shot on location, or at least it is presented that way. This means that you get all of the truly gorgeous beauty of the Australian countryside, juxtaposed with the horror of what the world has become. Take that first opening shot as we pan down on the houseboat making its way down a river as the trees launch up from the edge. Or the barren yet also green hills they walk through later in the film. At another point we focus on Rosie in the foreground while something truly devastating happening out of focus in the background. There are these moments that almost take your breath away and they are all framed in such a way that if it was not for all the living dead roaming around trying to kill everything that moves it could be a great tourism ad for South Australia.
This is a film that right from the start knows how to build and use tension as a way of telling a story. One of the ways they achieve this is through the handy contamination packs that they pick up at the start of the film. These packs include maps to safe locations, instruction manuals as to what to do if someone is bitten, restraints, a tool for killing yourself if you are infected, and most importantly a watch that has a 48-hour countdown. Having a countdown to be a core driving force of your narrative is not unique to Cargo, but they implement it really well. It is not a literal countdown like 24, but just having the watches there is a constant reminder that there is very little time left. It also means that the film happens over a very finite timeframe, which adds to the weight of every decision.
Cargo is a film that really gets what it means to be a good zombie film, it is not about the monsters, it is about the human stories that you can tell in the face of a world full of monsters. Just a quick warning that because we will be looking at some of the themes in the story that there may be a couple of [SPOILERS] here. The first thing is how we respond to a crisis, and while we may like to say we would be all calm, often we don’t act rationally, instead, we act emotionally. Take the start of the film where Kay is bitten because Andy was trying to protect her from the knowledge of how close to the disaster he was. Then a bit later it is Andy’s own emotional response that dooms him because he wouldn’t let Kay end her life, and he swerved to avoid someone crossing the road, causing them to crash. At any other time you would swerve to avoid someone on the road, but now the people on the road are no longer people, but that drive to do no harm still is there. We see those people like in the character of Vic (Anthony Hayes) who in the face of monsters, become monsters themselves in a sort of way, or maybe the disaster brings up what was already there. Indeed what does it mean to be human in a world where it might be every person for themselves.
This leads to the main theme of the film and the second plotline that threads through the narrative and that is the story of Thoomi (Simone Landers) and her quest to protect her dad Willie (Bruce R. Carter). It is so great to see that a film from Australia, especially one that is about to get a wide global release on Netflix that has such a strong Indigenous Australian focus. You hear this in the soundscape which I believe was achieved with help by Dr G. Yunupingu, which reverberates through you and around you. It also explores the dynamic of how the local Indigenous people were much better prepared to deal with the calamity, and indeed they may have felt it coming before anyone else. There is also a real juxtaposition between how they are responding to the crisis and say how Vic is responding to the crisis, even though the methods might be close. A lot of this is given to us by Thoomi who provides context to the world around her, and it all works because she is a fantastic actor.
Indeed, I think why Cargo works as well as it does is down to the commitment that all the actors are giving to their rolls. Martin Freeman plays a character that has an almost single focus, which could become relentless but he infuses it with real humanity, even if that might be a deeply flawed humanity. You have David Gulpilil whose sheer presence on screen makes every scene he is in that much more captivating. Also, this is a film where the majority of the time all the cast have to act with a small child, which is no easy task at the best of times but even those young actors are outstanding. As well as this, there are a number of small roles throughout the film and each brings a realisation as to the extent of the damage to the world that they now live in.
In the end, do we recommend Cargo? Yes, really do. It is a film that magnificently used the power of tension to tell a story of a world that has fallen apart. It has an ending that emotionally wrecked me but was still somehow uplifting. Every part of this project has come together to make something truly grand, and it was great to see. At the core of this film is love, the love of parents for their child, and a child for their parent, and what a strong message that is.
By Brian MacNamara: You can follow Brian on Twitter Here, when he’s not chatting about Movies and TV, he’ll be talking about International Relations, or the Solar System.
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Credits – All images were created by the cast, crew, and production companies of Cargo
Directed by – Ben Howling & Yolanda Ramke
Written by – Yolanda Ramke
Based on – Cargo by Yolanda Ramke
Cinematography by – Geoffrey Simpson
Edited by – Dany Cooper & Sean Lahiff
Starring – Martin Freeman, Susie Porter, Simone Landers, David Gulpilil, Kris McQuade, Anthony Hayes, Natasha Wanganeen & Bruce R. Carter with Lily Anne McPherson-Dobbins, Marlee Jane McPherson-Dobbins, Finlay Sjoberg & Nova Sjoberg
Rating – Australia: MA15+