Martin Freeman made his career playing affable fish-out-of-water—friendly, helpful fellows, but basically audience proxies replicating the viewer’s incredulity at outlandish people and things. He’s the perpetual straight man, the sounding board against which The Office’s David Brent and Sherlock’s eponymous detective bounce against. Even in the realms of fantasy and sci-fi, he mainly plays second bananas: befuddled intergalactic traveler Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005); pub crawler and unexpected android Oliver “O-Man” Chamberlain in The World’s End (2013); CIA agent and Wakandan tourist Everett K. Ross in Black Panther (2018). Then there’s his role as Bilbo Baggins in Peter Jackson’s ill-conceived Hobbit trilogy. Somehow these films saddled J.R.R. Tolkien’s diminutive yet big-hearted hero with the personality and charisma of a soggy paper towel. He was more placeholder than protagonist, a POV from which the audience could follow the exploits of the barely more interesting dwarves on their journey to the Lonely Mountain.
It’s this legacy that makes his turn in Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke’s Cargo so remarkable. Set in a post-zombie apocalypse Australian Outback, Freeman spends the majority of the film with nobody but a baby to work with. There’s no self-deflating banter, confused double-takes, or moments where he realizes he’s not in Kansas anymore. There’s only the desperate need to survive in a desperate situation. Find supplies, get to safety, make allies, avoid enemies, and hope that everyone will still be alive the next morning. This is Freeman stripped to his barest essence. And his steely-eyed performance is what helps elevate the film from passable zombie-horror to something touching and occasionally profound.
But maybe “zombie-horror” isn’t the right way to describe Cargo. It might take place in a world overrun with the undead, but it’s first and foremost a family drama pulsing with richly realized metaphors on parenthood, grief, and institutionalized racism. (Yes, the zombie sub-genre as imagined by George A. Romero was explicitly allegorical, but decades of schlocky splatter flicks and self-referential meta-comedies has ensured that audiences can no longer assume that modern zombie films have such hidden depths.) The film opens with married couple Andy (Freeman) and Kay (Susie Porter) and their infant daughter Rosie traveling down a river on a salvaged houseboat as they try to reach a military base. When they come across a scuttled yacht—ironically christened the “Serendipity”—Kay breaks the cardinal law of cinematic river trips and gets off the boat. She’s promptly attacked and bitten. And though survivors in this world have 48 hours after infection before they “turn,” a second accident accelerates her transformation into an unthinking monster. After killing the thing that used to be his wife, Andy takes Rosie and sets off on a journey across the Outback to find what little society might be left.
Along the way he meets Vic (Anthony Hayes) a deranged ex-miner who uses kidnapped Aboriginal children as bait to hunt zombies. After suspecting Andy of trying to run away with his “wife” Lorraine (Caren Pistorius), a young woman from the mining camp whom he’s imprisoned, he’s thrown in a cage with Thoomi (Simone Landers), a young Aborigine on a self-proclaimed quest to recapture the spirit of her zombified father so he can be healed by her people’s Cleverman. They break out, rescue Rosie, and flee once more into the Outback, becoming a surrogate family on the run from both zombies and a vengeful Vic. You could write the first half of this film in your sleep, but during these scenes where we see the confluence of Western and Aboriginal cultures the film suddenly jolts into life. We’ve seen families on the run from zombies. We’ve seen crazed Outback killers. But the last half of this film uses the zombie genre to revisit many of the ideas first explored in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), itself a film about white people lost in the Australian wilderness with nobody but an Aboriginal child to guide them. Both meditate on the stripping away of modern society in favor of antediluvian cultural heritages, and both ponder possibility of cultural exchange and communication despite centuries of racial oppression and violence. But Howling and Ramke do more than retread Roeg’s themes—they expand them to explore the redemptive power of sacrifice and the salvific grace of love. One of the final moments of the film—one involving a wooden spear and a vial of perfume—sits alongside Bub listening to music in Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985) as among the most beautiful and poignant of the zombie genre; it’s a supreme illustration of mankind’s capacity for transcending our beastly natures. If not for the predictable, plodding first half, I wouldn’t hesitate in naming Cargo one of the best zombie films in recent memory. But what’s new and brave and true here shouldn’t be missed.