Styx: Human Flow, by David Bax
This review originally ran as a part of our AFI Fest 2018 coverage.
Whether they are philosophers, sociologists, ecologists, biologists or filmmakers, plenty of people have wondered whether to define humanity as a part of nature or apart from it. That question certainly seems to be in the air in Wolfgang Fischer’s forceful, beautiful, thoughtful new film, Styx. The protagonist all but raises it herself when she sets off on a solo sailing journey to Ascension Island in the Atlantic Ocean, about 1,900 miles west of Angola, where she will visit Green Mountain, a man-made, planned forest in a national park. On the way there, though, she’ll encounter far less beautiful examples of the adversarial coexistence of man and nature.
Introduced pulling an unconscious man from a wrecked car, we next see the doctor (Susanne Wolff) preparing for her excursion. Without even knowing her name, we know that she can take of herself and others. After keeping her boat afloat in a terrifying storm—a sequence that Fischer and Wolff pull off with imposing, visceral force—she encounters another ship, a slowly sinking fishing trawler overfilled with sick, dehydrated and dying African refugees en route to Europe.
As the doctor goes about her work on the listing, storm-battered sailboat, she rarely speaks a word. For that reason alone, Styx will inevitably draw comparisons to J.C. Chandor’s All Is Lost. Styx improves upon that film, though, by being less self-conscious and less in thrall to its own self-imposed restrictions. In fact, Fischer may be openly challenging Chandor’s Jack-London-at-sea narrative by, halfway through, exploding it with the sudden, undeniable arrival of bigger, more global concerns.
Aesthetically, however, Styx does adhere to a strict minimalism. What little score there is comes in the form of droning electric guitars, not unlike Neil Young’s music for Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man. Once on the ocean, though, all we hear is ropes swishing against the masts and supplies rolling around in the hold. That is, until we hear the desperate shouts for help.
Europe’s influx of refugees has been the subject of a bevy of films in recent years, from documentaries like Gianfranco Rosi’s Fire at Sea and Ai Weiwei’s Human Flow to fictional works like Michael Haneke’s Happy End and Aki Kaurismäki’s The Other Side of Hope. With Styx, Fischer has made one of the most straightforward films on the subject as well as one of the most allegorical. The doctor has not just the skills but also the basic human compassion to help the refugees but not the resources or the boundless energy it would require to help all of them. In this way, Styx is not just a movie about refugees but about our current political moment in which intelligent, rational people look at an increasingly narrow-minded, greedy world and despair at the seeming insurmountability of the problems. Styx manages simultaneously to capture that despondency as well as the fury and ferocity we may need in order to address it.