It’s not uncommon I’ll assess a movie as being “just OK,” “average,” “mediocre,” “a narrow thumbs down,” etc. But there really aren’t many movies I see that I regard as an out-and-out dud—maybe 5%. (The key there being “movies I see,” since I’m unlikely to watch a movie unless I expect it to appeal to me. If instead I were not choosing my movies, like if I were a paid film critic assigned to see and write about all the mainstream, high publicity releases that the public wants to know about, it might be more like 75% that I don’t like.)
Live Cargo, unfortunately, is in that 5% of duds.
It’s one of those intentionally obscure movies, with little dialogue and scenes shot in such a way as to provide less information than usual (maybe in the dark, maybe brief, maybe from a poor angle, maybe too close up, etc.). You have to infer the bulk of the story as best you can from minimal evidence.
It’s a lot more about atmospherics and mood than a story anyway, with that mood being specifically an unrelentingly dreary, gloomy one. It’s in black and white, the background music is funereal, and rarely does anyone as much as smile. The body language and facial expressions of the characters are sullen and ominous. There’s a lot of loitering in small groups, smoking, and drinking beer. Even in scenes where people dance, get intoxicated, etc., there’s a joylessness to it, like they’re just going through the motions and forcing it.
Before I watched the film, I read a brief description of it as well as one or two reviews (which is about typical for me; I rarely read a great deal ahead of time about a film nor go into one completely cold knowing nothing about it). Had I not done that, I would have been much more lost than I was. As I watched, I kept thinking, “How the heck did the people who wrote that little bit I read discern even that much from this?”
In fact, I found myself trying to imagine what I’d have made of this film had I not “cheated” like that ahead of time and really had had to rely solely on what was on the screen. It would have been something like this:
It starts with an interracial couple (Lewis and Nadine) who seem very unhappy about something. The woman is holding what appears to be a baby, and from the very little that is said I gather that it is dead.
Next, they show up in what I take to be a new location (though where that first scene was is not identified, so I suppose one cannot say that for sure). Judging from the visuals and the accents, I think it’s a Caribbean island.
Presumably their baby died and they’re dealing with their grief by taking this trip. I don’t really know even that much though; for instance, for all I know some baby that was in their care died, and they fled here because they were in trouble for that. But, yeah, the most likely thing is their baby died and coming to this island is supposed to somehow help them emotionally in the aftermath of that.
They are greeted happily by a local man, Roy, a middle-aged black man who carries himself and interacts with people like perhaps he’s some authority figure, maybe something like the chief of police of this coastal town. He knows Nadine but not Lewis. Clearly he and Nadine are fond of each other; she remarks later that she has known him for most or all of her life.
She seems to have at least some familiarity with some of the other people too, and some of the locations. So I infer she’s from here (and Lewis isn’t), though it’s possible she and her family came here regularly on trips when she was growing up, or even that she and Roy know each other from somewhere else I suppose.
Nadine is nearly always grim and speaks little throughout the film; Lewis speaks less. If he tries for any kind of intimacy, she rebuffs him, indicating that she’s not ready for that yet. There are obviously problems in the relationship where they’re not able to come together for each other in their grief, but they for the most part don’t verbalize their feelings. At one point, she does make a brief accusation about his “not being there” for her, but there’s not much more than that. (He was certainly “there” in the sense of being physically with her in the room at the beginning when she was holding what was probably her dead baby, so presumably she’s talking about his not being properly emotionally available and supportive at that time or something.)
Besides Lewis, Nadine, and Roy, there are two other characters who get significant screen time. One is a vaguely sinister tough guy type nicknamed Doughboy who seems to be a sort of rival of Roy, like maybe he’s a criminal that Roy doesn’t quite have enough on to bring down. You get the sense they’re circling each other warily waiting for the other to make a false move.
There’s an early conversation between Roy and Doughboy where Roy expresses his unhappiness about something Doughboy is doing, where he says something about how the way Doughboy is making use of all the boats unfairly crowds out other people who could be using them. Or something. I didn’t get it (I could only understand 75%-80% of the dialogue of the locals due to the accents; that certainly didn’t help), but it almost felt like there was some informal system where local fishermen and such used whatever boats were available without anyone actually owning them, and this Doughboy was kind of upsetting the custom by commandeering all or most of the boats for him and his people and creating a monopoly of some sort. But it’s all very vague; I really didn’t know what the arrangement was and what he was doing that Roy didn’t like.
Much later there’s some stray dialogue about Doughboy being a smuggler, and then it turns out at least one nefarious thing he’s doing is using boats to facilitate some kind of illegal immigration. Though if that’s what’s going on, and Roy knows it and is some local authority, I’m not sure why he can’t nab him.
There’s also dialogue late in the movie about “using rich white people’s boats” that people aren’t supposed to be using. So maybe that’s a clue what they were talking about earlier. Maybe for most of the year the boats of American visitors sit idle, and the locals tend to use them even though they’re not supposed to, and authorities like Roy typically look the other way unless someone is too blatant about it, like in Doughboy’s case. But those are all guesses.
The remaining major character is local white kid Myron. (The population of this island, or this area of the island, seems to be about 80%-90% black.) I took him to be a teenager, but when he mentions in a scene with Doughboy that he’s considering trying for a GED, Doughboy scoffs at the notion and tells him that he’s too old, that it’s too late for that kind of thing. So maybe he’s 28 or something. But he looks and acts more like a kid.
He’s kind of a drifter type. He’s poor—though just about everybody in this place seems to be—and I guess he helps out on boats and maybe does other odd jobs. Roy is friendly toward him and throws him some work, as does Doughboy, though since Doughboy’s (probably) a bad guy it feels more exploitative than the avuncular way it feels with Roy.
Myron has some kind of problem with his mother—he’s shown once or twice calling her and trying to reestablish a connection and then changing his mind—and is kind of unhappy and aimless in general, as well as probably sexually or romantically frustrated. He clearly has a thing for Nadine, but it’s not clear if he’s heavily into her specifically or if it’s more that in general as a young guy he’s horny and wants sex or a girlfriend regardless of whether it’s her or someone else.
So for the bulk of the movie, Lewis and Nadine are tolerating each other in a troubled relationship that they don’t talk about, Roy is sympathetic toward them but can’t do much but give them space, Roy and Doughboy are keeping tabs on each other and perhaps drifting toward some climactic confrontation, and Myron is lurking along the outskirts of all these people’s stories.
Then, I think, Myron takes one of the boats for Doughboy that Doughboy isn’t supposed to be using, and that boat that night capsizes when full of (I guess) illegal immigrants, later identified as from Haiti. Many of the Haitians are killed or seriously injured. In a chaotic scene at the local hospital, or some space being used as a hospital, everyone is chipping in trying to help, including Lewis and Nadine. At one point they are given a baby to tend to, as the parents are dead or dying. Myron is there briefly, but then runs off, clearly upset, I assume feeling guilty about his role in all this. (I don’t think he was directly responsible for the boat capsizing, or that he was on it when it capsized. I’m assuming he’s upset because he knew it was going to be used for this dangerous thing and so now he’s guilty that he did Doughboy’s bidding by taking it.)
Doughboy and Myron have it out, then Roy and Doughboy have it out, while Lewis and Nadine consider whether to keep the baby that haphazardly ended up in their hands.
So that’s more or less what I got from the movie from actually watching it. A lot of guessing, a lot of surmises.
OK, now let’s compare that to descriptions of the movie: Lewis and Nadine had a baby that was stillborn. They then traveled to an island in the Bahamas that Nadine was from. Roy is the mayor of this town. Doughboy is a criminal involved in human trafficking. Myron is homeless.
So I was reasonably close on most of that, but didn’t pick up on all the details. But a lot of my guesses I can’t judge because I haven’t seen them confirmed or disconfirmed in what I’ve read. I’m not sure how much of that is genuinely ambiguous or left unrevealed, and how much I just missed. (I suspect plenty of it is the former. The New York Times review says, “Despite its tantalizing plot elements, this is a story woefully short on specifics.”)
I don’t fully understand even the illegal immigration stuff. Are they trying to get from Haiti to the United States and just stopping in the Bahamas temporarily (or not stopping in the Bahamas at all and just passing near there, had they not capsized)? Is their final destination the Bahamas because it’s slightly less miserably poor than Haiti, but immigration is illegal to the Bahamas from Haiti?
Overall, Live Cargo is a confusing, dreary mess with a lot of unhappy mostly poor people glaring at each other ominously for an hour and a half.