“Live Cargo” is one of the most evocatively shot debut films in recent memory, which is why its shabby storytelling is such a crushing disappointment. Rendering its every character and dramatic scenario in a single dimension while visualizing them — and their Bahamas surroundings — via rapturous black-and-white HD compositions, Logan Sandler’s drama/thriller feels as if it were conceived with only mood in mind. Alas, no amount of captivating atmosphere can compensate for the sheer torpor of this thinly sketched tale, which will struggle to make headway against spring’s wave of theatrical releases.
A thoroughly oblique opening finds Nadine (Dree Hemingway) and Lewis (Lakeith Stanfield) weeping as their newborn baby is taken away from them. The fact that it’s not immediately clear that the infant has died is emblematic of the film’s plotting, which is heavy on quick, silent close-ups of aggrieved faces but distressingly short on lucid details. That continues to be the case once the unhappy couple arrives on an unspecified Bahamas island and shacks up with Roy (Robert Wisdom), who’s something like the de facto mayor/police chief of this isle, and who has some ill-defined longstanding relationship with Nadine and her family.
As Nadine and Lewis stare dolefully at each other, she letting the wind blow through her hair and he medicating his despondence with bottles of beer, Roy finds himself contending with Doughboy (Leonard Earl Howze), a boatman who’s apparently trafficking in the Haitian refugees whose attempts to reach the U.S through the Bahamas is routinely discussed on local radio. To help in this illicit trade, Doughboy employs homeless teen Myron (Sam Dillon) — this despite Roy’s efforts to take the wayward kid under his wing, buying him a lotto ticket and taking him out fishing for his birthday.
The particulars of Myron’s situation are, like Roy and Doughboy’s conflict or the fracturing romance of Nadine and Lewis, conveyed through an endless series of impressionistic snippets that ask viewers to infer characters’ backgrounds, relationships and emotional states. Such a demand, however, soon proves unreasonable, given the sheer dearth of compelling information provided by Sandler’s and Thymaya Payne’s screenplay. Rather than fleshing out its protagonists’ circumstances in order to elicit empathy for — or at least a complicated reaction to — their plight, “Live Cargo” instead focuses almost exclusively on crafting a particular, poetic tone, and then wallowing in it at the expense of anything else.
Typical of the film is an early scene in which Nadine goes underwater spearfishing, which soon has her coming face-to-face with a shark, and concludes with her emerging from the water to take shaken gasps of air. As with so much of his material, Sandler’s monochromatic cinematography is stunning, capturing an authentic sense of both the region’s lush beauty and, in the contrast between its blinding whites and menacing blacks, also its potential dangers. Yet the sequence is all surface. Its concluding shot of an upset Nadine, who moments earlier had seemed intent on chasing after the predator, leaves one hopelessly unsure of what, precisely, she’s thinking or feeling.
Saddled with characters who are defined by a solitary emotion apiece (if that), Hemingway, Stanfield and Dillon make almost no appreciable impression. Not so for Wisdom, whose embodiment of the paternal Roy has a lived-in quality that transcends Sandler’s superficial scripting. The veteran actor’s charismatic turn, though, isn’t enough to enliven the clichéd tragic-but-hopeful finale, replete with a crisis that arrives during a terrifying (and strikingly photographed) storm. Cinematographer Daniella Nowitz will surely be able to use her fine work here to attain more high-profile gigs; “Live Cargo” is little more than an impressive aesthetic demo reel devoid of substance.