Film Movement Movie Review: Styx (2018)

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When asked by Don Cheadle's Hotel Rwanda protagonist Paul Rusesabagina how people can "not intervene when they witness such atrocities," Joaquin Phoenix's cynical realist Jack gives it to him straight, telling him, "I think if people see this footage they'll say, 'oh my God that's horrible,' and then go on eating their dinners."

Exploring the phenomenon "of western indifference in the face of marginalized suffering," in what the press notes accurately describe as "a modern-day parable," Austrian born director Wolfgang Fischer fell back on the two subjects he'd studied before film school of psychology and painting for the urgent, topical, nerve jangling humanitarian thriller Styx.

Named after the river that separates the living from the dead in mythology and oozing with Darwinist references and symbolism, Fischer's feature about a German emergency room doctor who comes across a sinking fishing trawler overflowing with refugees on her voyage to Ascension Island is a damning indictment of moral apathy and hypocrisy.

Having taken a Hippocratic Oath to save lives, which she does on land back in Germany — running towards a car crash near the beginning of the movie — it's in Rieke's (a fierce Susanne Wolff) nature to do the same once again as she watches people abandon the slowly sinking vessel in shock.

Told by the coast guard to keep her distance in order to avoid putting herself at risk, Rieke fights the urge to disobey, which becomes that much stronger when a teenage boy makes his way across the Atlantic Ocean onto her small boat, the Asa Gray. Saving his life while waiting for someone — anyone — to intervene, the situation grows more dire with time.

Taking what in the hands of most filmmakers would've been a story about survival against the sharks, elements, and odds a la JawsOpen Water, or even — its closest thematic relative — All is Lost, in Styx, Fischer dares to play against expectations. Embracing the internal existential horror that the villain and hero of the film is mankind itself, Rieke's call to action is a call to all of us to act as well.

Having developed what cinematographer Benedict Neuenfels describes as, "special equipment to maneuver and stabilize the camera," over years of preparation to make what is largely a silent film, the technically stunning work — shot near Malta with an eight person crew — is anchored by a decisive yet vulnerable turn by certified blue water sailor and actress Susanne Wolff.

A thinking person's survival drama, Styx plunges you right into the heart of a desperate situation alongside our lead. Yet while Fischer clearly loves symbolism both in terms of Reike's Darwinist journey and the film's use of subtle contrasts, there are times when alternating points-of-view or giving us a longer, earlier look at the trawler in distress might've strengthened the emotional core of the otherwise gripping narrative.

Clearly the type of film you'll want to discuss afterward, fresh off the festival circuit, this tense, terse award winner sails into theaters this week from Film Movement.

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