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BFI London Film Festival 2017 Review: Cargo

Cargo, co-written and directed by Gilles Coulier, is a drama about three brothers who own a fishery business that’s on its last legs. It tries to be a quiet, introspective character study but is so understated that it ends up being frustratingly dull and opaque.

With their father on his deathbed, Jean (Sam Louwyck) finds that the fate of his family’s fishery business is in his hands. His younger brother Francis (Wim Willaert), a closeted gay man, has no interest in the dying business, while the black sheep of the family, William (Sebastien Dewaele), wants to keep it going despite crushing financial difficulties.

This is a bleak, somber drama in which characters don’t say much and emote even less. It’s a fine line between understated and vacant, and Cargo is nowhere near it. There are certainly hints of deeper internal conflicts and complex interpersonal relationships, but the characters are so distant it’s practically impossible to invest in what’s going at all.

Take Jean and William, for instance, who don’t like each other much very much. We know they don’t like each other, we’re given a sense of why they might be the case and then they find something that kind of forges a bond between them again.

There’s just enough going on Cargo on an emotional level to give you a sense that something is happening. but it’s never quite clear what that something is or why you should care. When he finds out that until their father dies, Jean needs William’s signature to make any kind of major decision regarding the business, Jean’s first instinct is not to reach out to his brother, but to pull the plug on dear old dad.

It’s a scene that sounds like it should be quite a punch to the gut, one that shows the deep level of resentment and divide between these two estranged siblings – yet it has about the same impact as getting gently slapped in the face with a fish.

Francis’ subplot feels completely disconnected from everything else that’s going on in the movie. He has a lover and he’s trying to hide that he’s gay from his family and from the world. This never ties into the fishery business. Hell, he doesn’t even really talk to his brothers about it. It’s a subplot that seems like it was taken from a completely different, yet equally boring movie.

The elderly father spends almost all of his scenes bedridden and comatose and yet by the end of Cargo it felt like I knew what his personality was like about as well as I did any of his sons.

Yet for its many faults, Cargo isn’t unwatchable. It’s clear that there’s an idea here and there are a few moments that work, like when William finally gets Jean to smile by goofing around with some fish they catch – and another scene in which a stern Jean explains to his son why sailors have tattoos is as mesmerizing as it is mystifying.

Cargo is not a terrible movie, but it is a very dull one – cold and emotionally distant, so understated it feels undercooked. Every once in a while there’s a glimmer of something interesting which might make an impression, but it’s all too rare.

Rating
5.0
Pros
  • A few interesting moments and ideas
  • Decent performances
Cons
  • Too cold and distant
  • Dull

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