There is significant cinematic pleasure in observing someone perform an action at which they’re practiced. Watching a pianist play or a driver change gear or a master thief pick a lock can exert its own fascination, and the camera can identify expertise, in muscle memory and dexterity that cannot be faked. In the first, nearly wordless third of Wolfgang Fischer’s thrillingly lean “Styx,” in filmmaking as crisp and slicing as a sea breeze, Suzanne Wolff’s expert amateur sailor Rike embarks on a solo voyage across 5,000 km of open Atlantic, in a tiny, bright white sailboat called Asa Gray. And simply watching this one-woman-show of intense physical prowess is so absorbing that it’s a double shock when she happens upon an overloaded refugee boat and the film’s sails are suddenly fat with intractable dilemma. This is “All Is Lost” with a spinning moral compass and a topical dimension that proves even more gripping than its brilliantly achieved visceral action.
As an efficient prologue has already established, back at home Rike is a doctor, and a first responder at that: perhaps the exact person you would want to have on the scene of an impending disaster. But though she has weathered an angry storm en route — demonstrating not only her decisiveness and self-reliance, but that peculiarly German knack for having exactly the right kit for every conceivable eventuality — this is one situation to which even her skills and preparations are not equal. The sinking fishing trawler she can see a few hundred meters away bristles with too many people for her to accommodate on her small craft, and the coastguard whom she immediately contacts promises that proper help is on the way, warning her to keep her distance in the meantime.
That directive seems heartless, but its practicality is demonstrated when Rike steers a little closer to the refugee boat, in an effort to get some of her spare water to its dehydrated passengers, and in desperation a number of them throw themselves into the sea to reach her. Most drown, but one boy, Kingsley (a superb Gedion Oduor Wekes) makes it almost all the way. Rike throws him a lifebuoy and hefts his exhausted, unconscious, dead-weight body aboard before retreating to a farther distance. She tends to Kingsley and dresses a nasty wound on his back, but when he finally wakes it only makes the agony of enforced inaction worse, as he explains in broken English that his sister is back on the sinking vessel and begs Rike to go back for her.
Without laboring the allegory, Fischer and co-writer Ika Künzel’s screenplay is airy enough that we can map the broader forces of Western indifference and corporate ruthlessness amid this ongoing humanitarian catastrophe onto these two players and the few voices that crackle over the radio. But the immediacy of DP Benedict Neuenfels’ precise photography — which somehow finds maneuverability in confined spaces yet gives the vastness of the ocean a sense of crushing claustrophobia — never gives us any distance from the personal moral quandary. Rike, acutely aware of her own higher “value” as a wealthy white Westerner is suspicious of the coastguard’s priorities, and so resolves to stake out the area until the promised rescue arrives. But the cries carried on the wind from the stricken trawler are getting weaker and fewer, and the horizon remains cruelly empty. Is it Hippocrates or hypocrisy or simple self-preservation that traps her in this impossible ethical mire?
Odysseus navigated his way between Scylla and Charybdis by deciding it was better to lose six men to a monster than his whole crew to a whirlpool. But one can never know retroactively if such sacrificial decisions were the right ones, and they will be cold comfort to the people who die and the people who mourn. In only his second feature, Fischer, abetted by a rivetingly capable performance from Wolff, evokes these classical allusions in a scintillatingly modern, provocative way, pulling his clever narrative taut through the cleats, and ratcheting the human stakes high as the implacable blue sky.