Adapting and expanding their 2013 Tropfest finalist short film of the same name, Ben Howling and Yolande Ramke’s Cargo takes a familiar genre trope – the zombie apocalypse – and imbues it with considerably more heart and pathos than usual by the simple expedient of framing it through the experiences of an ordinary man who is trying to get his infant daughter to safety.
The twist is that he has been bitten, and has a scant 48 hours before he too becomes one of the ravening undead. The clock, as they say, is very much ticking.
Martin Freeman is our everyman hero, Andy, who has things ratcheted pretty tight when we meet him, living on a houseboat with his wife, Kay (Susie Porter), and baby, Rosie, and scavenging for supplies while the world goes to hell around them. This static situation cannot last, of course, and soon Kay is dead, and Andy is on foot, infected, and desperate to find a safe harbour for his daughter.
While the original short film is almost all concept – and works wonderfully because of it – the feature version must, of course, expand on that original conceit, something screenwriter and co-director Ramke does in interesting and resonant ways. The presence of a couple of government-supplied gadgets – a 48 hour countdown clock and a spring-powered bolt gun meant for suicide – indicate that we’re in the midst, or perhaps the very tail end of, an ongoing apocalypse, and there are other indicators of semi-functional but faltering infrastructure and authority.
In such dire circumstances you might forgive Andy if his own ethics falter, but Cargo refuses to embrace the nihilism that sits at the heart of almost every zombie movie. Given the choice between leaving Rosie with Vic (Anthony Hayes), an amoral scavenger who nonetheless has created a fortified enclave in the wasteland, and rescuing a young Indigenous girl, Thoomi (Simone Landers), and returning her – and Rosie – to her people, he chooses the latter, no matter what the potential cost to himself.
Freeman’s performance as Andy is Cargo‘s beating heart. Here is an average man in the most awful circumstances, possessed of nothing out of the ordinary except for an incredible sense of decency and grim determination – he simply won’t give up. The presence of his baby makes his predicament all the more immediate – you can read Cargo as a metaphor for how we’re all doomed to let our kids down sooner or later, if you like – but rather than cut himself off from the world in order to protect his own, Andy repeatedly shoulders more responsibility, helping first Andy’s “wife”, Lorraine (Caren Pistorius), and then Thoomi. He acts with a kind of workaday empathy and kindness that is made remarkable by the horrific circumstances of the film. Casting amiable, careworn Freeman in the central role is a bit of genius, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else carrying the film so well.
He’s buoyed and balanced by Landers as Thoomi, whose presence makes the feature largely a tow-hander in contrast to the original short’s one man show. Whereas part of Andy’s strength is his ability to move forward – his wife is dead and the world is on fire, but he has a job to do and a deadline – Thoomi is trapped by the past when we meet her, trying to care for her zombified father, who she still sees as human. With only one other screen credit to her name (the NITV series Grace Beside Me), Landers nonetheless delivers a complex performance here: Thoomi is bereaved, angry, frustrated, and possessed of the beaten stoicism of the marginalised. She’s also smart, resourceful, driven, determined, and kind. It’s a really great turn.
Cargo has an interesting relationship with the past. While the action of the film all but yells that the past is dead weight in a crisis – Andy’s wife, Thoomi’s father, Andy himself, ultimately – the characters’ final goal is to hook up with a group of Indigenous people who have returned to their traditional easy and are dealing with the undead hordes in an organised, methodical way. It’s a treatment of Indigenous culture that edges right up to the uncomfortable but doesn’t quite cross over, in that we have a couple of white filmmakers iportraying Indigenous Australians with a nigh-mystical ability to dispatch zombies, but in a way that lacks cultural specificity. Cargo’s credits list a number of cultural advisors, and we can assume that the film’s treatment of Indigenous characters and elements have been handled in good faith, but nonetheless it does smack of the kind of romanticism with which some colonised peoples were viewed in the 19th century.
Such a misstep – if you think it is one, and your mileage may vary – stands out, perhaps, because everything else is handled so well (Cargo‘s predictable tendency never to utter the Z word notwithstanding – coyness is a trait genre fiction needs to rid itself of). The film is incredibly deftly shot and assembled; Ramke and Howling enlisted veteran cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson (The Last Days of Chez Nous, Oscar and Lucinda) for the project, and he gifts the film with a sense of scope that belies its modest budget. The first-time feature directors’ tonal control is on point, nimbly pivoting from the horror of the apocalypse to the hope and humanity represented by Andy and his desperate mission.
That hope is what really sets Cargo apart from the pack. By this stage of the game the zombie genre should be dead and buried by this stage of the game. Who’d have thought that the secret to new life would be to inject a little humanity into the old shambling corpse?