Directors: Ben Howling, Yolanda Ramke
Writer: Yolanda Ramke
Starring: Martin Freeman, Anthony Hayes, Susie Porter
Stranded alone with his baby daughter in rural Australia in the aftermath of a violent pandemic, an infected father (Freeman) desperately searches for a new home for his child, while facing the increasing challenge of protecting her from his own changing nature.
It seems that every week there is a new film released that features some kind of zombie-like creatures, but while we often get the usual tried-and-tested survival stories, this genre does provide plenty of scope for films to use this premise in many different ways. Cargo adopts this premise on a very low-key, personal protagonist driven narrative in the style of The Road and though does unfortunately succumb to a few of the clichés that are typical of the genre, it does still offer enough fresh ideas and competent storytelling to be an effective and engaging film. In fact, we rarely see the infected characters, and Cargo is all the better for it.
The decision to distribute this film through Netflix would appear to be the right one, as this is the kind of low-key drama that would be likely to only reach a very limited cinema audience. Not to say that Cargo is not cinematic, Ramke’s film is often very beautifully shot; capturing the sparse Australian landscape perfectly and producing a very effective feeling of threat and helplessness from simple wide-angle shots. While the musical score is also effectively sombre and mournful, and this and Geoffrey Simpson’s sun-drenched cinematography only add to foreboding atmosphere of the film, making the setting very much a character in its own right.
Indeed, Howling and Ramke prove that less can indeed be more in the film’s excellent first third, as we spend time with just Martin Freeman’s Andy, and his wife and young daughter. We are given enough information as to what has happened to the world and learn enough about the characters to care about them as the film unfolds at an intentionally measured pace, and there are scenes skilfully constructed that are tense through the use of suggestion, rather than showing, which does tend to be more effective.
It is no spoiler to state that Andy does unfortunately get infected, and by the time the main plot does kick in we cannot help but empathise with our protagonist and his paternal instincts which drive the narrative. Cargo did start off as a short film, and this becomes quite clear as Howling and Ramke do struggle to fill out 105-minute running time, and so do resort to some lazy narrative genre clichés that do undermine some of their good work in the first third.
New characters inevitably have to be introduced, and this is where the film does struggle at times; There is a rather two-dimensional aggressive local man who has plans to profit from the pandemic (played a little too aggressively by Anthony Hayes) and his reluctant would-be partner (played with no conviction at all by Caren Pistorius) who conveniently hinder / help Andy when the narrative needs them to.
One of the more refreshing aspects of Cargo and its very deliberate setting of the remote Australian wilderness is that it incorporates the Indigenous Aboriginal Australians into its narrative, and their ways of life play a key role within the narrative. How much of an allegory this represents is certainly up for debate and could be interpreted as being so, but it provides an element of authenticity with regards to where the film is set, despite the occasional narrative contrivance that comes with it.
For a low-key character driven narrative like this to work, the choice of leading actor is essential, and Martin Freeman is perfect in the role. He is very much an everyman, and because of this Andy is a far more relatable character than if it were some lean and chiselled Hollywood hunk. Freeman is a commanding screen presence and adds an essential level of understated authenticity to the role of Andy. As Andy gets ever nearer to turning (a good narrative tool is that infected characters can wear a Fitbit-like device on their wrist which counts down how long someone has got left until they ‘turn’) we cannot help but want him to succeed in finding a new family for his daughter, and the fact that we know his characters fate from the beginning adds a level of poignancy to the whole film.
Overall, Cargo may have some elements that clunk, but thanks to Freemans performance, the wonderful use of the film’s setting and some well put together individual moments (a scene near the end that features another family is particularly powerful), it is an emotionally engaging and quite haunting viewing experience and definitely one of Netflix’s exclusives that is worth watching.
Though it succumbs to the occasional narrative cliché, Cargo is a deeply engrossing and visually effective character driven narrative that will linger long in the memory, and it also adds a few new elements to a very tired genre.