It’s a shame that Netflix spoiled a key moment for Cargo in the trailer. All you need to know about the film is Martin Freeman is trying to protect his infant daughter from zombies in the Australian wilderness. The film is based on a 2013 short also by Australian filmmakers Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke and the 105-minute version of the film is the feature length directing debut for Howling and Ramke. The post-apocalyptic thriller follows Andy (Freeman) as he travels on a houseboat with his wife Kay (Susie Porter) and one-year-old daughter Rosie. They try to play it safe, but a routine supply run shatters the safe bubble Andy has kept his family in. Cargo introduces a different take on the zombie outbreak: the infected have 48 hours before they turn and infected individuals begin to secrete this yellow jelly-like discharge from their eyes, mouths, and wounds/bites.
There are containment assistance kits that are apparently common enough to be floating around in the river to be taken at anyone’s disposal. The kits are filled with a watch with a countdown to transformation, various pamphlets including one about symptoms the infected will experience over the next 48 hours (fever, nausea, vomiting, and seizures), and something that looks like a modified EpiPen, which is placed against the temple, a button is released, the device clicks, and a large six-inch spike enters the brain to keep the victim from fully changing (by, you know, death). Some choose to bury their heads in the dirt where they eventually starve or are burned by a local aboriginal tribe.
Cargo isn’t a horror film despite the presence of zombies. The zombies still feast on flesh and are attracted to blood, but they’re more of a background element. There’s a heavy emphasis on purely surviving in the film, finding sanctuary and where your next meal is going to come from, and what someone goes through those last few hours before they turn rather than the bloody carnage that’s usually associated with a film like this. Cargo aims to be more of a thrilling drama and that’s quite possibly what makes it stand out over other zombie films. Not only are the zombies altered from what you’re used to, but the presence of the primitive tribe that lives off the land, has unusual rituals, and believes that the zombies are people who have lost their souls that need to be rectified by their local “magic man” offer these unpredictable elements to a common concept.
While Andy scrambles to find Rosie suitable protection, a native girl named Thoomi (Simone Landers) has purposely left her tribe as she roams alone taking care of her zombie father. Believing he has only lost his soul, Thoomi’s father has this man-made head brace complete with a stick in his mouth to serve as a mouth guard so he can’t bite anything. The device is believed to be temporary as Thoomi intends to bring her father back from the undead abyss. It’s inevitable that the lonesome road she’s on intertwines with the desperate path Andy finds himself on and the two become entangled in a way that doesn’t fully reveal itself until the final moments of the film.
Martin Freeman is so incredibly good in Cargo. He already had a fantastic outing in the British horror film Ghost Stories, which had a limited theatrical run in the US this year. Freeman’s performance in Cargo is scaled back in comparison. Andy faces hopelessness in less than two days, but never really seems to panic. Freeman’s eyes seem to give away that Andy is scared shitless, but he keeps his cool for his daughter’s sake. Even when he’s on the brink of no return, he worries more about both Thoomi and Rosie and comforts them over comforting himself. Freeman has this welcoming demeanor in his performance for Andy. He has no idea where to go or what to do, but he remains approachable and easy to get along with despite the circumstances. You could say Freeman took the role and portrayed it nonchalantly, but there’s more to it than that. Freeman is illustrating that there’s an art to keeping your cool in the face of certain death. Even when he doubts himself, which is on more than one occasion, there’s heaviness to his indecision and a conflict that anyone would find difficult to overcome. Every action and facial expression is calculated to the extent that Andy has more depth than the typical zombie victim. Andy is a devoted father and a hell of a human being and next to Yolanda Ramke’s exquisite writing is all thanks to Martin Freeman’s extraordinary performance.
Cargo is the film Henry Hobson’s Maggie was trying and failed to be; a riveting thriller driven by a stellar performance by its lead star. It helps that the Australian landscape is so dry and relentless, which factors into the desolate nature of the post-apocalyptic world these characters find themselves in. Even first time actress Simone Landers makes a long-lasting impact. Martin Freeman delivers a well-crafted performance while the story taps into some unexpected layers of emotion. The ending packs a softhearted thwack to your delicate inner organs that is nearly as heavy as the finale to Logan. 4.5/5 Rugged (Not Ragged) Bibles.