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Cargo is every emerging filmmaker’s dream. A short, lauded at Tropfest, captures studio eyes with a premise more than worthy of a fully funded feature, here adapted to thrilling if flawed effect.

Taking over as the dad who has to deliver his baby to safety’s arms before he soon joins the undead horde aimlessly wandering rural Australia, Martin Freeman’s race against time has here been fleshed out from a 7 minute shocker into well over two hours.

Adding, as one might expect, several new characters and a back-story which fills the opening act, the action that leads to the film’s confluence with it’s origin is largely extraneous and as with the short could just as well have been excised. This segment may have remained relevant but for a later, considered examination of the particular tragic circumstances that brought Freeman’s character to this point and the impact on the film’s central, sympathetic figure. Even within Cargo’s lengthy runtime this element’s absence, and what it could have brought to the story, is notably conspicuous.

Certainly one seeming call-back to the Festival short in an early scene is never fully revisited or followed through on, it’s presence in the story’s previous iteration providing a hook for the drama; it’s absence here throughout the breadth of the film’s run resulting in a meandering, ill-defined narrative.

Freeman trying to beat the clock and encountering all manner of obstacles is regardless compelling viewing, for the most part; his coming across one nefarious individual in a circumstance that beggars explanation nonetheless leading to two of the film’s most confronting sequences. Cargo’s revisiting of these elements, among others, in an altogether coincidental and less then probable manner, does little to advance what bears the vestiges of a more adept thriller.

A number of Indigenous men and women who have survived the onslaught of undead appear throughout and present the possibility of an engaging narrative which is never completely realised, with Cargo lingering on the band for precious little time, and then often for more emotive, stylistic sequences less heavy on dialogue. It is at these junctures when the film’s excellent cinematography is most apparent.

An Indigenous child, ultimately linking this fixture of the film with the overarching narrative, joins the father for much of the picture. This role, aside from their initial and final moments on screen, bears frustrating little consequence for the action comparative to the heft of their presence throughout, the companion being granted significantly less relevance to the evolution of events than the more aged figures.

Worse still, this presence fundamentally shifts the dynamic so better evidenced in the short to the extent that the film’s stated inspiration is rendered as tokenistic as it is at times aptly realized. The film too sacrifices any meaningful length of interaction between Martin’s character and his child due to the availability of multiple persons with which he can converse, their role, and in particular that of Freeman’s youthful companion, ultimately diluting the redoubtable conceit of the short that made it such a prospect for a feature-length adaptation.

To this end, this version of the conclusion by which the Tropfest entry so distinguished itself, only one aspect of the powerful original piece that is worth seeking out, if stylistically consistent markedly lacks the substance and suspense of it’s predecessor, the further presence fundamentally shifting the stakes and marginalising the shock and impact of what worked to thrilling effect in the short.

As engaging at times as it is not infrequently ill-considered, Freeman regardless manages to elevate the still moving thriller that benefits in part from a series of shrewd casting calls.

Cargo screened at the Adelaide Film Festival and will be available on Netflix

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