There’s something about a good anti-hero that makes audiences fall in love. Whether it’s watching the slow moral corruption of Michael Corleone, the oft-horrific charm of Hannibal Lecter, or the nihilist machismo of Tyler Durden, the well-executed anti-hero brings a certain energy that taps into something within the audience that lingers. Now, trap the anti-hero in a cage and give him little hope of survival. In order to survive, he must travel through the nine circles of Hell and then, maybe, he’ll make it out. This is writer/director James Dylan’s [Cargo], a thriller which sees a man journey into the depths of his own soul and finds only trace elements of what used to be.
Anthony Peterson (Ron Thompson) wakes up in a metallic cargo container unsure of where he is or how he got there. The only thing on him, save for his clothes, is a cell phone and the voice on the other end bears terrible news: Anthony’s been kidnapped and his wife’s being held hostage. If Anthony doesn’t deposit $10 million into a bank account within 24 hours, both he and his wife will die horribly. With few options and no time, Anthony must do whatever it takes to get out of this alive.
Staged entirely within the cargo container, [Cargo] seems right at home with other “trapped at sea” stories like Gravity, Phone Booth, and Buried. The concept is powerful in the right hands, forcing the character into painful isolation and taking the audience along with them. For the most part, [Cargo] successfully maintains the illusion of Peterson’s solitude. The container appears to be painted black with shades of white peeking through and has lights placed evenly throughout to ensure that there’s no place for Peterson to hide from his captors. Peterson is restricted in who he can communicate with and must follow specific guidelines in his communications: no law enforcement, no pleas for help. Without question, the container is limbo – the first circle of Hell. Though the container does not physically change to reflect Peterson’s movement through the different circles, the narrative’s continually shifting denotes each entrance into each new location. The fact that Peterson is unable to leave, only able to pace the container, maintains the thematic element of his doomed situation.
Unfortunately, that’s where the good ends. Plagued by inconsistent narrative rules, unengaging performances, and characters that are the literal worst people, [Cargo] gives the audience little reason to invest in the story. Peterson’s only tool is a cell phone, one which was given to him by his captors and one which the audience is left to assume possesses a full battery. Without the need for charging, this phone manages to get crystal clear calls through the container for, what the narrative suggests, hours on end. Even if the notion that the captors anticipated this and gave the phone a stronger battery and a signal boost before planting it is accepted, it doesn’t explain how the phone can block out background noise one moment and pick up all the noise the next. As a stage play, there could be some bending of the rules of reality, but the first 20-minutes of the film establish how real things are, so it makes the outlandishness of something like the phone reception stand out. Adding to this, Peterson’s only company is a series of voices on the other end of each call he makes. While the voices are likely intended to represent different circles of Hell, none of the characters we meet along the way are particularly engaging. Take Tom (voiced by Mark Wood), an associate of Peterson’s who helps him track down funds from sources legal and illegal. Of all the other characters, this is the one Peterson speaks to the most, so the assumption would be that they’d have a strong bond. Truth is, like all the others Peterson speaks to, what Peterson assumes and the truth of things are vastly different. In order for Peterson to realize this, however, the audience must listen to Tom jump back-and-forth between being a sniveling sycophant and an opportunistic narcissist. Tom is highly representative of all of Peterson’s relationships – rotting at the core – which should make them incredibly engaging to listen to. However, since all we get are Thompson’s reactions and loads of expository dialogue, there’s nothing for the audience to grab onto emotionally. Compounding these issues is the fact that not a single character Peterson engages with, himself included, is worthy of redemption.
All of the narrative aspects hammered into the dialogue lead to one conclusion: that everyone and everything Peterson’s touched is rotten. Give us Corleone slowly losing his soul piece by piece. Give us Lector’s refined cannibalistic tendencies. Give us Durden spouting violent revolution. Each of these are characters on a journey, whereas Peterson is a man whose journey is purely of the imagination since the audience experiences nothing other than what Peterson hears. Things do rev up in [Cargo] when an attempt to raise funds accidentally breaks the captor’s rules and the audience witnesses just how far Peterson is willing to go to save the life of his wife. After, though, it’s just more listening. Just more waiting. There’s no rising tension or character satisfaction. All there is is Peterson in a fight for his soul, the outcome of which no one seems to care about.
On paper, [Cargo]’s got some great ideas. A singular character forced to confront his sins in order to save an innocent life. It should be an intense ride as the audience, like Peterson, waits at the mercy of others for resolution and, perhaps, redemption. But even when the resolution comes, it’s in a manner meant to be thoughtful or compensatory, yet its strict adherence to only focus on Peterson takes much of the strength out of [Cargo]’s ending. If the whole of the film is meant to be allegorical, a certain amount of mystery in the ending is to be expected, however, the execution of [Cargo] seems far more literal, which should result in a more specific finale. Considering the thoughtful thematic work underneath [Cargo], it’s a shame that the execution of the film doesn’t quite match the intent.
Final Score: 2 out of 5.