We’re not using the ‘z’ word

Cargo is packed full of ideas. Directed by Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling and scripted by Ramke, the movie’s biggest burden is its ambition, its exhaustive attempts to dredge up something new from the thoroughly plundered zombie apocalypse genre—which it does do, on occasion. There are ideas about community and family, presented through claustrophobic set pieces in the contradictorily open Australian outback. There are indigenous characters whose plights recall a terrible history, presented intelligently through a father’s (Martin Freeman) journey to ensure safety for his daughter. Left behind on the filmmakers’ scavengings however, are the foundations on which a solid, believable movie rests: character motivations are questionable or downright stupid, genres are blended too haphazardly, and its protagonist is frighteningly bland. All in all this is precious cargo, too heavy to lift.

Image via bbcamerica.com

I called it a zombie movie, but the movie, like The Walking Dead (2010), like 28 Days Later (2003), like Shaun of the Dead (2004), doesn’t use that term. The shambling, decayed, corpse-like flesh eaters are ‘infected’ people. Married couple Kay (Susie Porter) and Andy (Martin Freeman) are travelling down the Murray River on a houseboat, trying to figure out what to do. They have an infant daughter, scraps left to eat (Andy makes a joke about eating the stationary), and the old boat is falling apart.

Though her character isn’t developed much beyond ‘good mother’ and ‘caring wife’, Porter brings the kind of relaxed, involved, natural performance she’s cultivated throughout roles in Puberty Blues (2012 – 2014) and briefly in Hounds of Love (2017). Next to the unbalanced, jittery and blank Martin Freeman, it’s a bit of a shame what happens next doesn’t happen to him instead.

Image via teaser-trailer.com

After Andy returns from a successful pilgrimage for food on a nearby abandoned houseboat, the screenplay irritatingly shows its first inexplicably foolish decision from a character. While there, Andy notices a door creaking its way open, revealing something moving. This is a tense moment, with the directing duo reinvigorating the fear present in such an established and often parodied archetypal monster: they may be slow, but in an enclosed space, speed leads to slip ups.

When he returns, Andy assures Kay the boat is safe, so she goes for a look, gets bitten and throws the whole peaceful operation into a race against the clock. Each character wears a wrist watch they can switch on to count out 48hrs, generally the time it takes to turn. Ramke sticks to this conceit fiercely, and it drives the narrative where other zombie movies, whose time-to-turn rules are usually dependent on the size of the actor’s role, tend to falter.

Things get worse and soon it’s Andy, against his own clock, trying to find a safe place for his daughter before he devours her himself. As he travels across the Australian outback, the directors show beautiful, wide shots of the open sky and bright sun, its parched lands and lack of civilisation standing in for a decayed city. The idea is brilliant, but the execution questionable. Most of these shots are picaresque, post-card worthy displays of an untampered landscape. Disaster movies like The Road (2010) more effectively use a washed-out palette and crumpling forest to beat down the viewer’s mood—here, Andy’s despair unevenly clashes with an uplifting sense of awe over the colourful cinematography.

Image via filmink.com.au

There’s a parallel story about an indigenous girl named Thoomi (Simone Landers) who is keeping her infected father sustained by feeding him scraps and wiring his mouth shut. Here is where the script feels focused and urgently trying to convey something through the medium of a genre movie. She punishes herself by belting a rock against her head for wrongs committed, and hides from her mother despite the dire situation she’s in. Andy eventually meets up with her and they travel together. His ignorance isn’t treated as the cultured white man smiling down on the uneducated indigenous girl, but instead a desperate man in a land he can’t navigate, seeking help from a native. Ramke subverts the still prevalent white saviour narrative (Wind River, Isle of Dogs) in a way that avoids preachy territory.

Throughout, the movie shifts genres through horror that isn’t quite scary enough, drama with underdeveloped characters and a survival story that never smudges Freeman’s makeup enough to feel perilous, or, in any way whatsoever, threatens to harm the baby. Given the directors’ competence with the tense scenes and Ramke’s huge wealth of ambition and intelligence with the script, it’s a promising entry that, like its uplifting ending, suggests good things for the filmmakers’ futures.

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