Styx: Save Our Souls
There is an unsettling familiarity lurking beneath Styx. At first glance, it may seem that director Wolfgang Fischer’s sophomore film is similar in style to Captain Phillips or the more recent Robert Redford survival thriller All Is Lost, but this eventually morphs into a portrait of something significantly larger and profoundly more unsettling. The film follows Rike (Susanne Wolf), an EMT escaping the severity of her daily routine through a peaceful, yet persistently threatening sailing trip. As we watch her sail on her own we begin to fill in the pieces, her unease and loneliness at first appear as premonitions to an exploration of her psyche and the will to survive that so often dominate this type of setup. Yet, Styx elegantly subverts expectations by supplanting Rike’s personal struggles with a crisis of a much larger magnitude.
The cinematography speaks to this as our gaze travels from extreme close-ups of Rike’s face to staggering overhead shots depicting the immensity of the ocean, as well as side by side comparisons of her yacht to a massive cargo ship. While this type of filmmaking feels right at home for telling a story of a woman surviving against the odds, we are instead confronted with an ethical nightmare that recontextualizes the trip as a bourgeois luxury, and interrogates the capacity of capitalism to address a humanitarian crisis.
This turnover happens when Rike encounters a fishing boat with over one hundred refugees sitting dead in the water. This emergency plays out against the backdrop of Rike’s own craft, filled with supplies, food, and the latest gadgets. We watched earlier as Rike meticulously planned every aspect of the journey, and prepared all the necessary provisions. Yet, in the face of a clear crisis, all of these comforts and technology are unable to provide any support. Her calls to the coast guard are met with resistance, and warnings to leave, while calls to a friendly passing freighter are met with a sympathetic yet solemn response. “Our company has this policy. I can’t risk my job for this.”
Rike becomes trapped and is left grappling with her own sense of responsibility, at once uncomfortable leaving the scene with nothing but vague reassurances that the coast guard will take care of it, and at the same time unable to act, paralyzed by the magnitude of the situation, and in a more profound way reluctant to fully engage and thrust herself into the danger. When a boy from the boat swims to her, nearly dying in his approach, we watch Rike struggle to save him, using all of her medical knowledge emergency skills, yet nothing has prepared her for the immediacy of the responsibility that he places on her once he recovers.
Rike is unable to respond, unable to justify her inaction in a legitimate way. We are left with anger and desolation. There is a familiarity in here too, the familiarity of the world of newspapers rattling off statistics about refugees in cold distant terms. The liberal guilt that at once acknowledges the suffering, and yet refuses to sacrifice an ounce of bourgeois comfort to make an impact. This view is often parroted in the quiet ‘he’s got a point’ head-nodding that crops up from those who label themselves as moderates in response to Trump’s grotesque ‘the country is full’ rhetoric.
At the film’s close, the distance afforded by Rike’s privileged conditions disintegrates, and as her path takes her deeper into the harrowing reality, the viewer finds themselves face to face with the horrors that exist beneath the familiar headlines. This is a nightmare that we are all witness to and complicit in, while our privileged institutions simultaneously serve as gatekeepers and clean-up crew. The video of Mike Pence aggressively staring down refugees in an American concentration camp should not just disgust us, it should spur us into immediate action. Styx asks: will we able to act in time?
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With 2020 finally drawing to a close, lets take one last look at the wonderful films that came out in this otherwise devastating year.
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