by Rob DiCristino
It’s difficult to talk about a film like Cargo, which premiered on Netflix this week, without resorting to well-worn hyperbole about its “bold new take” on the zombie genre. It’s also difficult to call it “more than” a zombie film without falling into the same subliminal (or, in some cases, clear and intentional) ghettoizing of horror for which the cinematic intelligentsia has become so famous in light of critical successes like Get Out and A Quiet Place. Instead, it might be most productive to call Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s film “an existential family drama with zombies.” Because aside from the occasional guts and gore, Cargo isn’t a horror film at all. It’s about survival and sacrifice, sure, as well as the lengths to which we’ll go to protect the ones we love. But it’s rarely interested in scares. At its heart, it’s about how we shape a meaningful life out of our limited time on the planet and how we choose to face the inevitable moment when we’re forced to say goodbye.
While Howling and Ramke’s photography lovingly captures the stark and beautiful Australian landscape and their careful direction produces great sight gags and emotional moments, Cargo is a film driven largely by a thoughtful screenplay performed well. The very first character beat — in which the doggedly-cheerful Andy waves to a camping family and gets threatened with a gun for his trouble — cues us to pay closer attention to the smaller human moments than to the worldwide zombie drama. No one does quiet exasperation quite like Martin Freeman, making him the perfect choice for a character endlessly oscillating between his responsibilities as a father and his fears as a human being. As he drifts deeper and deeper into infection and insanity, Andy’s urge to end his own life for his daughter’s protection keeps bumping up against his desire to stay with her as long as possible, his primal instinct as a parent to see her in the safest hands available. Freeman’s performance is unlikely to set the world on fire, but it is genuinely great.*
Though the film wisely avoids overextending itself in terms of scale, one misstep might be a slightly undercooked storyline involving Thoomi and her Aboriginal family. The character parallels are clear — like Rosie, Thoomi is a little girl who has lost (or will lose) her father and needs to find her way home — but there’s an occasional lean toward “native mysticism” that feels more like lip service than a theme being properly explored and developed. David Gulpilil stars as The Clever Man, a shaman who appears to Andy at significant points in his journey, but his role in Cargo’s larger political and social messaging is hard to pinpoint. Is the film arguing that humanity is better off returning to nature to live off the land? Is it positing, as Thoomi insists, the zombification is simply a robbery of the soul, a spiritual attribute that can be reinstated under the right circumstances? Again, it’s hard to tell. Regardless, Simone Landers delivers a mature and understated performance that keeps us rooting for Thoomi all along.
*One moment that floored me: Andy hands Rosie over to Vivian and says, “Please look after her.” It’s not a pleading request. It’s not even an instruction. It’s the most important thing he’s ever said. Freeman’s eyes convey what his words cannot.