Filmmaker Logan Sandler is certainly careful not to exploit the Bahamas throughout Live Cargo, which takes place in and around the nation’s more underprivileged neighborhoods. Yet despite his debut feature focusing on such ugly things as homelessness and human trafficking, everything here looks paradoxically beautiful when glimpsed through Sandler’s arresting visual style. The film’s stark, high-contrast black-and-white cinematography makes the Bahamian landscape seem otherworldly when drained of the bright colors we associate with the country from travel adverts, while some images of everyday objects and occurrences, such as storm clouds churning in the sky, look almost devoid of naturalism, even suggestive of moving paintings. Sandler’s visuals may be fascinating, but they don’t distract from his apathetic storytelling or his seeming indifference to basic human emotion.
Live Cargo’s dual narrative follows Nadine (Dree Hemingway) and Lewis (Lakeith Stanfield) as they travel to Nadine’s family home in the Bahamas to recover from the death of their newborn baby, while the homeless Myron (Sam Dillon) becomes embroiled in a human-trafficking plot under the command of a local hood, Doughboy (Leonard Earl Howze). The sparseness of the parallel storylines is indicative of Sandler’s jettisoning of plot and character specifics in the service of mood. The filmmaker only has his characters, specifically Nadine and Lewis, operate in crushing somberness, which is also reflected in Live Cargo’s monochromatic photography.
It’s ultimately difficult for audiences to empathize with Nadine and Lewis because their relationship is never elaborated on beyond the long, silent (and quickly redundant) stares they direct either to each other or into the horizon. During a scene set at a bar, Nadine leaves Lewis at their table to go drink with a few locals, and rather than offer a nuanced interaction between Nadine and Lewis that would suggest the couple’s past history and the complexities of their relationship, Sandler focuses on Lewis mournfully watching Nadine form a distance. The faces in Live Cargo, like the landscapes of the paradise setting, only convey an empty sort of ambiguity.
Sandler, though, shows glimpses of a strong neorealist sensibility in naturalistic sequences depicting the characters converging with the Bahamas’s citizens. This is most effectively felt late in the film when Myron and Doughboy’s trafficking plan comes through and they begin to transport refugees using a stolen boat; the montage of disconcerted faces and bodies cramped together coupled with the cinematography’s inky shadows creates a striking feeling of impending doom. But the visceral power of this climax is undermined when it’s dubiously contrived to fulfill the resolution of Nadine and Lewis’s (non-)emotional arc and we’re asked to finally care for the bland pair in a moment of heroism intended only to pave the way for their obligatory happy ending. And yet it’s difficult to do so given that the film itself only saw these individuals as mopey ciphers up to this point.