In “Live Cargo,” Nadine (Dree Hemingway) and Lewis (Keith Stanfield) have suffered a horrible loss — the worst thing that a young couple could experience; a loss too large to comprehend. The film doesn’t make an attempt to comprehend it — the loss is seen only in the eyes of Nadine and Lewis, staring at the fluorescent lights of a hospital corridor, in flashes of hands and small feet. It’s not spoken because it can’t be.
They escape to the Bahamas, a place where Nadine grew up vacationing. She finds comfort in the the steadfast company of Roy (Robert Wisdom), the man who tends to her father’s property, the man who taught her to swim and dive, deep under clear water with a spear gun. She finds calm below the ocean’s surface, stalking sharks. She drowns her thoughts in rum and beer and music and salt water, while Lewis watches, mournfully.
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“Live Cargo” is directed by Logan Sandler (co-written with Thymaya Payne), who grew up partially in the Bahamas. This insider perspective is significant for a film about a place like this. The point of view is immersed in the world, not outside of it — the people, though they are carefully observed, aren’t exotic objects to be gawked at. Nadine is in fact the person who draws the gaze, looking as different as she does, though she knows this place well.
During a nighttime Junkanoo carnival dance around a bonfire, we see flashes of jeweled costumes, feathered headpieces and dancing bodies, but it’s less about seeing it from afar than about experiencing it from the inside, the rhythmic release that carries Nadine away from her own head and body. She’s carried away on the beat, only brought back down by her concerned mate, who is the stranger in the strange land.
The film is shot by Daniella Nowitz with a tangibly textured black-and-white cinematography and is so lushly gorgeous you want to eat it. The black-and-white choice deprives the audience of the bright, tropical colors so you focus on shapes, textures, light and shadow. Skin glistens with sweat, sun dances on the ocean’s surface, light bounces around a bar. Hemingway is all cornsilk hair and delicate Roman nose; Stanfield is made up of doleful, sad eyes and cheekbones.
Their vacation becomes complicated with the presence of a young local white boy, Myron (Sam Dillon), abandoned, nearly vagrant, hungry and desperate. He helps out the boat men for a few dollars, though he yearns for more — a nice watch, a nice woman. He’s taken with Nadine. His palpable desperation is clear to the moralistic and noble Roy, as well as bad influences like Dough Boy (Leonard Earl Howze), who draws him into a dark world of theft and deceit. Their choices lead to tragedy, a whirlpool that sucks in Roy and Nadine and Lewis.
The black-and-white cinematography references films of the 1960s like “I Am Cuba,” and the imagery relies on abstraction to build a moody lyrical tone. Portrait-style shots and composed moments of stillness harken toward fine-art photography, using editing as an evocative mode of storytelling — a dramatic storm is rendered in quickly edited shots of crashing waves on rocks and faces in the night.
The abstract images serve the storytelling, which is made up more of thematic elements and emotions. Things are indicated, suggested, hinted at and emoted (with help from the percussive and imposing score by Brooke and Will Blair) without clear articulation. Sandler embraces the moments of quiet, and there’s a silent power in his stillness, especially in Stanfield’s performance.
There are no truly easy answers, even when there seem to be. The narrative is loosely strung together and the abstraction of visuals and story replaces clear plot connective tissue. The film is overtly influenced by New Wave approaches, especially Third Cinema in Latin America, both aesthetically and thematically. The political message is a bit thin, if garbled, implicating economic issues in the choices of characters, and referring to nebulous “rich white people” (of whom Nadine is one).
But “Live Cargo” is a mood piece, a tone poem of a place, a mythic tragedy driven by devastatingly human fallibilities. Anchored by a quartet of equally strong and understated performances by Hemingway, Stanfield, Wisdom, and Dillon, “Live Cargo” proves itself to be a singularly artful film of great emotional heft. [A-]
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