Adapting and expanding their 2013 Tropfest finalist short film of the same name, Ben Howling and Yolanda 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 Vic’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 two-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 traditions 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 portraying 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. Who’d have thought that the secret to new life would be to inject a little humanity into the old shambling corpse?
Sneaking out of her mother’s house to go to a party, a teenage girl, Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings) is kidnapped by a couple, John (Stephen Curry) and Evelyn White (Emma Booth), intent on rape and murder, and imprisoned in their suburban home. She is not their first victim. Vicki soon realises that her only hope of escape is to drive a wedge between the sadistic, predatory John and the volatile, emotionally fragile Evelyn. However, her attempts to do so may just see her headed for a shallow bush grave earlier than planned.
Perth director Ben Young’s feature debut is relatively straight forward in terms of plot, but it lives in the details. Hounds of Love is a closely observed examination of the banality of evil and the transactional nature of relationships – even relationships rooted in rape and abuse. Young, who also wrote the screenplay, builds up his mundane suburban milieu layer by layer, letting the tacky ephemera of mid-’80s Australia do the heavy lifting in defining a humdrum, beat down world of sleepy, sun-beaten streets, thong-wearing petty criminals, scorched lawns and semi-feral neighbourhood dogs. It’s behind the scenes where the real horrors happen, though.
“Horror” being a charged term. Hounds of Love deals with some undeniably horrific subject matter, but its approach is careful and deliberate, implying more than showing. Cinematographer Michael McDermott’s command of the frame is exemplary, turning the Whites’ suburban house – only a handful of rooms behind security locks and plywood-covered windows – into a foreboding prison. There is gore at times, yes, but far more affecting is the ever-presence possibility of violence, to the point where, when it does erupt, it’s almost a relief.
What we focus on then, is the character dynamics, as we try to predict how the tensions between the three principals will exhibit themselves, and who has the power in any given exchange. Young’s handling of this is deft; his background in music videos pretty much assured we’d get a good-looking film out of him, but his handling of the cast and the character relationships is really impressive. Stephen Curry, usually seen in much lighter fare, is mesmerising as the menacing John, enacting terrible power fantasies in his suburban castle to compensate for his inadequacies and lack of power in the real world, while Ashleigh Cummings gives an incredibly courageous performance as a child of privilege who must find hidden strengths to carry herself through her ordeal.
Emma Booth is the real standout here, though, embodying a woman who is both abuser and abused, conditioned by literally decades of subjugation into being an accomplice to atrocity. It’s the tragedy of her situation that elevates Hounds of Love above your more rote “everyday horror” fare; we see her desires for some kind of normal, nurturing life, but its forever beyond her reach because of the nature of her relationship with John. she’s repulsive, to be sure – a rapist, a murderer, complicit in, if not guilty of, torture and depravity – but there’s a humanity in her that’s capable of eliciting empathy, which makes for some very uncomfortable and conflicting viewing.
Surely it goes without saying that this film is not for everyone? Nonetheless, it would be a mistake to label Hounds of Love as a simple exercise in boundary-pushing for its own sake. This is an intelligent piece of grounded horror, and an outstanding debut film.