Cargo uses the prolific zombie genre as a primer for exploring certain anxieties and inequalities concerning power relations and time. For what it’s worth, the intent is visible and delivered with remarkable understatement by the main cast. Its main issue – as several have already observed – is its tentative relationship with the zombie genre. Yolanda Ramke’s film nudges towards flesh eaters and escape sequences while attempting vehemently to provide something more gradual and symbolic. Though this perhaps undermines the symbolism considerably, it’s ultimately heartening to see the genre sidling down more meditative, thoughtful routes, than the pulse-racing paths of gore that have since gained pop cultural purchase.
In Cargo, the world has been savaged by a mysterious virus, leaving Freeman’s Andy, his wife Kay (Susie Porter) and their baby Rosie to fend for themselves in a ramshackle canal boat. Amidst gaping stretches of the grey lake and unkempt overgrowth, human life is only visible in snatches. Early on, Andy shares a hair-bristling glance with who could have – in another time – been a neighbour but has been reduced to grasping tentatively at a gun while gathering around the single balloon he’s salvaged for his child’s birthday. Through images both stark and reticent, we’re made to ponder what child could thrive here.
The opening moments are slow-paced, meditative, solidifying Cargo’s intent to be more character study than a trigger-happy action flick. The opening setting itself is also rather refreshing – there aren’t many post-apocalyptic dramas that make use of the canal boat, but for reasons that soon become apparent, the makeshift fort is quickly abandoned.
As you might expect, things get ugly. Interestingly, the way in which infection is approached in Cargo seems more measured than most other genre pictures. When infected, the victim is left with 48 hours before they inevitably lose themselves. It’s a smart literalisation of the ‘ticking clock’ that so often plagues contemporary experience; the constant pressure to do as much as one can before it is too late, and the subsequent frustration in working out how to go about it.
Like Romero’s inaugural Night of the Living Dead, Cargo makes good use of its dystopic landscape to interrogate current issues. Alongside disquieting meditations upon the brittleness of equality in the midst of a systemic breakdown, the film attempts to interrogate the- still quite fraught – relationship of Australian indigenousness toward a land now dominated by “white fellas”; what Thoomi – a young indigenous teen Freeman befriends on his cross-country quest – calls gubbas.
But it seems several critics have struggled with Ramke’s film by virtue of the genre it so ardently tries to enter. It’s true that Cargo almost works against itself in trying to provide a thrilling zombie movie alongside a blunt social critique. Indeed, if it wasn’t for the fact that the outback hadn’t been sent spiralling into overgrowth by reasons other than a mysterious human disease, the allegory may well have been more noticeable. What Ramke often does instead is provide the viewer with just enough iconography to tantalize the zombie mode, before drifting off in attempt to develop the voice of the young Thoomi (played by a diminutive, yet unavoidably authoritative Simone Landers), and her coming to terms with the conditions she finds herself in. What could’ve succeeded, then, as a less-parodic Mad Max interrogating the social imbalances and anxieties that could very well take over if our brittle culture suddenly imploded, reads instead like an extension of the social drama contained in The Walking Dead; those moments that only really work because of the urgency created by the visible threat of the zombie hordes.
There’s already a lot of praise surrounding Cargo as a different kind of zombie movie, most of which isolate Freeman as a lightbringer to Ramke’s film. But while Freeman no doubt taps into deep, inner turmoil as believably and effortlessly as he has in his previous roles, there is nevertheless something in Cargo that prevents me viewing it as the sinking canal boat Freeman must step in to save. Aside from the captivating performance of newcomer Simone Landers, Ramke’s film is harrowing, thought-provoking and charged with fascinating imagery; the regrettable thing about it that it attempts to satisfy a genre that calls for something more conspicuous.