Cargo was a film I didn’t have on my radar. I didn’t know anything about it. I hadn’t seen or, even heard of the short film in 2013 that went viral, and when I did stumble upon the film on Netflix, I had assumed I was watching something fresh out of the box. Nope! This film directed by Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke premiered at the Adelaide Film Festival in time for the 2017 Halloween season and was released worldwide in late-2018 by Netflix.
In truth, I think I may know the reason. The zombie genre has etched out a real legacy in the realm of cinema, television, and videogames, but is one I’m always a tough sell on. I love videogames like Resident Evil, but other pandemic titles like Dying Light and Dead Island remain in my eternal backlog. I think, generally, I have a been there, done that reaction to them. That’s why when I heard the description for this film, I was really intrigued by it.
The film centers around a main-protagonist played by Martin Freeman, he has a wonderful wife and a small infant daughter – all’s well, except that it’s a dystopian scenario where zombies roam among them. On a houseboat, Andy (Martin Freeman) and Kay (Susie Porter) sail toward rural Australia. With their dwindling government rations, their eyes are on the lookout for supplies they can salvage. In the wreckage of a small boat, they find exactly that, as well as a choice encounter with an infected. Long story short, Andy’s character is left alone with his infant daughter. However, this is not a Last of Us style scenario about a father-figure and young girl’s bond as they fend off the world. Andy is infected.
That’s right, our main-protagonist’s death is a foregone conclusion. In this film, when a person becomes infected, they have 48 hours before the virus overtakes them and they become rabid.
Individuals are handed special “kits” by the government, equipped with a “self-neutralizer”, that can kill you straightaway, puncturing your skull at the press of a button. If you can’t stomach the thought, individuals also bury their heads in the dirt as a method of keeping themselves from hurting anyone once they’ve turned. I like little details like that, as I think the practicality and solutions to such a scenario show careful, throughout storytelling. Like in A Quiet Place, all the ways they suppressed sound.
As Andy walks through Australia, carrying the small child with him, he is tasked with only one thing – her safety. The world is a cruel place, only made crueler by circumstance. He has forty-eight hours to find someone who can look after his daughter and provide her a life he can’t.
The film’s concept is benefited by a steadfast performance by Martin Freeman. An actor who I’ve always thought of as, not limited, but, perhaps, typecast, in a lot of what he has been in. For the same reason Robert Downey Jr. always plays the cocky, confrontational loudmouth, Freeman often plays the polite and formal man reluctantly thrown into a situation. This film does not reinvent that, per se, but it allows him a little more breathing room, playing a character that feels relatable, flawed, and very human.
The character feels driven and the setting and minimalist approach creates a sense of dread that fills the film throughout. I have heard this film described as a pseudo-tribute to the 2009 film The Road, and I can absolutely see the comparison. Although, absolutely, I don’t think this film is nearly as mirthless and cold. Cargo definitely does feel, at times, like a crescendo of sadness, but I found that Freeman injected a sense of life to what otherwise might have been a very drab affair.
The film did feel a little disjointed and/or messy in some instances, an opinion that I developed more in-retrospect than after I watched the film. As I watched the film, I appreciated the performances, attention to detail, subdued cinematography, and the ingenuity I feel it brought to the genre. However, I could not escape this feeling that they had a central concept, a central objective, “father needs to save daughter”, and that they even had a good ending for the film (I loved the payoff and how they resolved it, and, sometimes, with a film like this, that doesn’t always happen), but that they didn’t have as good a grasp on what to do in the middle of it. Certain subplots can feel frivolous or ham-fisted, and, without seeing the short film, I can imagine the benefit of a narrower, more taut scope.
If you have been sitting out on watching Cargo, or if you’re like me and you hadn’t even heard of it, I’d recommend it pretty enthusiastically. It offers a character-driven, unique approach to the zombie-genre, accomplishing something quieter, more intimidate, and worthwhile. As far as horror on Netflix is concerned, I would call it a buried gem that has been overlooked (by myself included).