★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Proving that there’s more life yet in the living dead genre, Cargo offers up some of the most sympathetic protagonists the genre has seen in years. Also, check out the short film that was the basis of this movie!
Directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Remke
Maybe it’s because of the COVID-19 epidemic, but this movie hit a lot of emotional buttons for me. Cargo is a film full of empathy, something that we have all been needing over the past few weeks. And Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Black Panther, The World’s End, Ghost Stories.) has always been one of the very best everyman protagonists that you can identify with. The zombie genre is now well past over-ripe and you can follow the trajectory of the Walking Dead to understand where we stand with the sub-genre.
With Walking Dead, the immense appeal of it was that they cast the show with deeply interesting characters. Flawed characters. Real people. Horrifying environment. But as we lost a number of our favorite characters, we cared less and less about the show, oddly. But one of the big conditions of the success for that show (and Game of Thrones) is that it did not spare your favorite characters. There are no Marvel Universe-style reset buttons. If your rooting interest got offed, they would come back milky eyed and shambling.
It is in that vein that we follow Andy (Freeman), his wife Kay (Susie Porter), and their baby Rosie, slowly puttering in a houseboat down an Australian Outback river in search of a safe haven that a military base may offer. Their world has been turned upside down by a zombie plague, and they are among the lucky ones to be in a nice safe houseboat. However, they are also running low on food, and they run across a half sunken sailboat in the river, and Andy takes a rowboat to scope out the situation. He finds a veritable treasure trove of canned goods and supplies.
Kay, feeling a bit sheepish for having nagged Andy about their prior food crisis, decides to make a trip herself to the sailboat, while Andy is sleeping and do some more scavenging. This trip was a horrible mistake. Kay is attacked by a zombie hiding in the boat’s hull, and she barely makes it back to the houseboat, bitten and infected. The family has no choice but to try and go overland to find the nearest medical facility and hope that they can treat her wounds.
A second story thread opens up following an aboriginal girl, Thoomi (Simone Landers), surviving in the outback and keeping her turned father, Willie, alive by feeding him rabbit carcasses. When the disease broke out, the aboriginal tribes retreated back to the wilderness, and have turned to hunt the undead and cleansing their territory by force. Thoomi fears that her mother will dispatch her zombie dad, so she is trying to keep her father and herself hidden. Thoomi is looking for the Cleverman (David Gulpilil), a local shaman, who can help free her father’s spirit.
Things are not looking good for Andy and his family, but they did find a working car on the side of the road. Their plans come to an abrupt halt after nearly hitting a stray Willie, Andy careens off the road and there is a terrible accident, sealing Kay’s fate, and forcing Andy out on foot in search of help, with Rose in a pack on his back.
In the course of his zombie walkabout, Andy rescues Thoomi from a nefarious outback scavenger (A classic “human is worse than the zombie” trope) who is caging aborigines as bait for zombies that he dispatches and loots. Andy and Thoomi team up on a mission to save Rosie and give Willie peace, before the bite he received from Kay overwhelms him. Their trek across the country is haunting, beautiful, and full of tragedies. The movie is full of desperate people at the end of hope, and you can’t help but get wrapped up in their plight.
Like 28 Days Later and The Girl with All the Gifts, Cargo embraces the central human story and is as much about society’s survival as it is about individual survival. Freeman and Landers give great depth and gravity to their roles and are immensely appealing. And bravo for Baby Rosie (played by two sets of twins) who gamely bobs in the backpack, only making a fuss when necessary to drive the plot. You know what you are going to get with Freeman: a quirky and very ENGLISH performance. Fussy and fastidious, and pushed outside of his comfort zone… that is the role he is meant to play. Landers was a revelation. The opportunity for Aboriginal Australian actresses is clearly not large, so I hope as she grows up she will get some roles suitable to her acting skill.
It doesn’t have to break lots of new ground to be great, it just needs to execute what it is trying to do with the heart. It does. This is a drama at its core, and it pulls all the emotional strings necessary for a great drama. The ending was spot on. I won’t spoil it, but it’s wonderful and melancholy at the same time.
Cargo was preceded by a wonderful proof of concept short film, also titled Cargo by Howling and Remke. This little condensed version of the feature film hit all the right marks, and it’s rather cool to see how the beefed it up to be the full-blown Netflix production. It also shows you how solid a fundamental concept they had, and that they figured out how to expand the story without making it feel stretched too thin. Andy Rodoreda (Black Water) plays Andy in the short film, and the writer/director Yolanda Remke is a survivor who finds Andy and Rosie. This too packs an emotional punch with much less dialogue. The power of a good concept! Check out the full short film below!
Cargo is rated R for zombie action, but as zombie movies go, the gore content is pretty low. The grossest thing about these zombies is that they produce bile like substances from their orifices. Yuck! But they, for the most part, eschew a the visceral guts and gore of a Savini or Nicotero effort. But really it would be R for the psychological trauma. This can be a very sad movie. Cargo is now playing exclusively on Netflix.