In a dystopian apocalypse, Andy (Martin Freeman) and Kay (Susie Porter – Hounds of Love, Underbelly), along with their infant daughter Rosie, travel into rural Australia, fleeing the devastating outbreak of an incurable, zombie-like virus. When Kay, and subsequently Andy, are bitten and infected with the virus, Andy has 48 hours to find a safe place for his daughter. Desperately fighting against the clock, Andy’s fate becomes intertwined with that of a young Aboriginal girl, Thoomi (Simone Landers), who is on a saviour mission of her own. Andy quickly realises that his daughter’s only hope lies with Thoomi, and her kin who have returned to the old ways in order to combat the plague.
Cargo is directed by up-and-comers Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke, and written by Ramke, developed from their short film by the same name, which was a finalist at Tropfest Australia in 2013. The short film gained momentum after it went viral on YouTube, racking up 11 million views. The feature film stars several prominent indigenous actors, including David Gulpilil (Rabbit-Proof Fence, Crocodile Dundee, Australia), Natasha Wanganeen (Rabbit-Proof Fence), Bruce R. Carter (Black Comedy), and film debutant Simone Landers, alongside Anthony Hayes (Secrets and Lies, The Slap) and Kris McQuade (Rosehaven).
Cargo is a tensely fatalistic thriller, not a zombie film but a drama film with zombies in it. As expected, Martin Freeman makes the role of the anguished father incredibly real and emotional, and Simone Landers does a spectacularly moving job in her feature film debut. As Andy fights against his increasing urge to consume flesh, torn between the spreading virus and his duty to his daughter, there is the suggestion of a metaphorical struggle between human greed and consumption, and the ability to protect and nurture. The film promotes a triumphant and primal returning to home, to family, to nature, to country, and a purging of the destructive scourge of greed.
Cargo can be considered an ecological parable, speaking particularly about colonial desires to corrupt, control and profit from the landscape. The film also speaks of custodianship and caring for the land over rampant individualism and selfish profiteering, the latter of which is epitomised in the character Vic (Anthony Hayes), an abusive, racist bundle of gun-toting toxic Australian masculinity. Permeating throughout the film are subtle metaphors about the ‘soul-stealing’ mining and fracking industry, and the film also faintly touches on issues such as rural community support and funding and domestic abuse. There is also a curious reversal of the Stolen Generations, and the deadly virus is reminiscent of the diseases brought over by early colonisers which decimated the Aboriginal population.
However, there are a couple of confusing moments and sudden jump cuts. The plot (and Andy) stumbles back and forth across the vast landscape but still ends up in the same places several times like a wanderer walking in circles. There seems to be several antagonists, the lesser evil of which are the ‘zombies’.
It is a really stirring experience to see the resplendent rural Australian setting on the big screen, and the film incorporates breathtaking and beautifully shot scenes of the Australian outback, which for once is not the great enemy, but rather a healing force if properly understood. There is a beautiful, almost poetic interplay of symbols, an amalgamation of discarded materialism and natural artefacts found particularly in the costuming of the indigenous peoples. The symbolism is quite heavy-handed in other parts, and while the film’s creators have noted their avoidance of didacticism, the moral lessons appear painfully obvious in certain parts. Also, there is a moment at the very end of the film which is sickeningly kitsch and somewhat upsets the thoughtful sentiment of the rest of the film.
Cargo is a powerful, tense, and at times deeply moving film. It is intelligent and thought provoking in its examination of the relationships between indigenous, non-indigenous and country. The film breaks new ground within the genre and within Australian cinema as whole.
I rate this film 8/10.
Cargo will be screening at Luna Leederville from May 17th. The film is available to the rest of the world on Netflix from May 18th (US time).