Review by oisin walsh
Rike (Susanne Wolff) is an emergency response doctor who lives on the island of Gibraltar. After a particularly senseless street racing accident, she decides to take a vacation on her 12 metre yacht, the Asa Gray, to Ascension Island in the South Atlantic: desiring an escape to paradise.
This is a film which may try the patience of many. Much of the early portion of the film is dedicated to Rike preparing to set sail and subsequently sailing across the ocean, completing the tasks one needs to do in order to survive in the treacherous sea. There is something remarkably satisfying about watching Rike complete menial tasks aboard the Asa Gray. Whether she is cruising calmly across the ocean or fighting to hold it all together in a storm, it never seems repetitive or dull. Of course, there are some who might be screaming out for more dramatic action or a clearer sense of her character. There is so much of this in the beginning that the audience could easily be fooled into thinking that this film will only be about her struggle to make it across the ocean to her destination. However, this is not the case.
Her journey is interrupted by another group seeking salvation and security. It is not until Rike encounters a shipwrecked fishing trawler of refugees that Styx really becomes an outstanding film. It becomes remarkably distressing to watch events unfold. We know she is not in a position to rescue all of these stranded people (her yacht can only carry so many passengers) and the coast guards are formal and dispassionate to the plight of the refugees. It is at once hard to watch and sinisterly engaging to see Rike react to this incredibly dramatic situation: should she continue her own journey, accepting that this is not a problem she is capable of resolving or does she intervene and become responsible for a number of lives?
I can imagine some would argue that Styx is too moralistic, and it might be accused of simplifying the refugee crisis while vilifying the actions of the coast guard. Certainly, the film makes no attempt to contextualise the narrative. We are never informed where these people have sailed from nor why the coast guards are so disinterested in rescuing the passengers of this shipwrecked vessel. Rike seems to be the only person willing to truly help these people in need and her actions are nothing short of heroic and selfless. Despite this, the narrative doesn’t become off-puttingly preachy, even if the message of the film is remarkably clear.
Beyond the heavy narrative, Styx is very striking in terms of its visuals. Each shot of the yacht on the ocean feels fresh and new, even though the general background of open ocean stays very much the same. There is nothing especially flashy about the look of the film but it certainly doesn’t allow the setting to appear dull or unengaging. The sound design further contributes to the setting, from the sporadic and distant cries for help from the fishing trawler to relentless waves smacking into the yacht. No scene is ever silent, and it helps to hook the audience to the action unfolding onscreen.
Styx explores a very contemporary situation with compassion and respect through the eyes of one who is not a victim of the refugee crisis, but an onlooker who wants to help but hasn’t the means to make effective change. I’m not sure of the director’s intention in making this film. I think he wants the audience to realise that we all want to reach paradise. We all wish we could escape somewhere. Rike wants to reach a beautiful utopia like Ascension Island, while for the refugees it’s a place where they can feel safe and secure. Some of us, like Rike, have the privilege of reaching these far off places, while some of us, like the refugees in the film, are willing to die trying to get there.
Styx opens at the IFI on April 26th.