There’s dark humor, and then there’s the obsidian comedy that pervades Aleksei Balabanov’s Cargo 200, a look at slices of Russia’s population as the country took its first awkward steps away from Communism toward Capitalism in the mid’ 80s. Filtered through the grim details surrounding a series of true-life murders and kidnappings committed by a local police captain and brimming with allegorical characters representing a spread of personalities and institutions, calling the film densely-layered would be gross understatement. A solid grasp of near-term Russian history isn’t required to appreciate what Cargo 200 (the clandestine code for dead Russian soldiers shipped home from Afghanistan) has to offer, but there’s little doubt a great deal more stands to be gained by viewers familiar with the country’s tumultuous turns in recent decades.
Cross-cutting between several different groups – a career soldier and his professor brother, a moon-shining family on the outskirts of town, clubbing teens, and the afore-mentioned sadistic police captain – the film weaves the characters’ lives together as they fret and debate over the changes in government at hand. The picture’s focus ultimately settles in on the unhinged policeman Zhurov and his captive “bride” Angelika as he foists increasingly savage degradation upon her. The sheer collective absurdity of circumstance pushes the film into the realm of very, very dark comedy as the stage is set for violent retribution against Zhurov and his family.
Balabanov’s script engendered great anticipation from the Russian film community but couldn’t land name talent based on its extreme subject matter – also a point of contention for the government, which held the film out of theaters and off television for an extended period of time before finally allowing it to see the light of day. Cargo 200 certainly isn’t flattering in its portrait of Russians as drunken hoods with little faith in God and even less in one another – it presents a country on the brink of a social apocalypse, with each demographic in line for its come-uppance. Cheery pop music underscores the optimistic tone the world viewed Russia’s transition with – a point of view clearly at odds with the citizenry experiencing the direct, day-to-day effects of a country in the throes of massive political change.
The film has a dark, gritty look befitting its characters and their stories. Set primarily in the fictionalized industrial city of Lenisk, scenes take place inside rotting tenements and sun-blasted, crumbling town squares. The afore-mentioned pop-heavy soundtrack adds to the disorienting, intentionally off-putting vibe coursing through the characters and story.
Running a tight 90 minutes, Cargo 200 keeps up a brisk pace tracking its many varied characters. Regardless of whether its allusions hit their mark with a given viewer or not, those unafraid of a rough night at the movies will find themselves drawn into the story’s twisted sense of humor and unconventional narrative choices. A far cry from his more straight forward but equally effective 1997’s suspenser Brother, Balabanov has created an intelligent and high original thriller worthy of notice.