Directed by: Wolfgang Fischer
Premise: A woman sails alone across the Atlantic Ocean. She comes upon a boat of refugees that is slowly capsizing. She alerts the authorities and debates whether or not to intervene.
What Works: Hollywood films generally offer us an idealized version of reality. We all like to imagine that if put to the test we would make the right choice and be brave in the face of adversity. Styx puts its protagonist in this sort of situation. She comes across refugees who are stranded in the open ocean on a boat this is sinking. The sailor does her duty to alert the authorities but when it becomes clear that they either aren’t coming or won’t get there in time, she debates what she can and should do. The scenario is powerful because it neatly visualizes the choice put before first world citizens; on a regular basis we are made aware of the suffering of people on the margins, both in our communities and around the world, and that knowledge comes with an implicit choice to do something about it or not. Styx cuts out the distance between the crisis and a western observer and the sailor is confronted not only with the plight of these shipwrecked refugees but also her own culpability if she does nothing. The sparse filmmaking style supports the moral dilemma of the movie. Rather than use the romantic and heroic techniques of a Hollywood film, Styx has an austere filmmaking style. The camerawork is naturalistic and the soundtrack rarely uses music. The style suits the themes of the picture. In real life, heroism does not get a Hollywood anthem and the suffering of refugees is not romantic. Styx is about moral choices and the struggle to survive and how ambiguous those choices can seem in the moment. The film is led by Susanne Wolff as the sailor. Wolff is alone on screen for much of the movie and she is engaging throughout it. We generally understand characters by their choices and interactions with other people and Wolff has a challenging role because she has very little to do at least in the first half. In the course of the movie the sailor is joined by a refugee boy, played by Gedion Oduor Wekesa. The young actor is also quite good. We can see the trauma and desperation in his performance without the film ever resorting to sentimentality.
What Doesn’t: The ending of Styx is not entirely conclusive. The story reaches its end but the final sequence opens up a new direction for the story that isn’t really resolved. The open-endedness of Styx is part of the point but the final sequence is so much bigger and busier than the rest of the movie that it comes across a little out of sync with the style of the picture.
DVD extras: Commentary track.
Bottom Line: Styx is a quietly compelling story. It’s not a flashy movie but it is very well made. What’s most engaging is the moral urgency that underlines the action and the way it dramatizes the relationship between the comforts of the first world and crises in the developing world.
Episode: #792 (March 8, 2020)