Come Sail Away

‘Styx’: a Moral Crisis in International Waters

Alone at sea. Self-reliant, on a 40-foot sailboat, in the Atlantic Ocean. Where shake-it-off skinny-dipping (with a nearby lifeline) is an act of Thoreauvian reverie. Where a solo voyage from Gibraltar to a beatific location halfway between Brazil and Africa becomes a spiritual pilgrimage. And where an encounter with a fishing trawler full of refugees turns paradise into hell.

STYX ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Wolfgang Fischer
Written by: Wolfgang Fischer, Ika Künzel
Starring: Susanne Wolff, Gedion Odour Wekesa
Running time: 94 min.

A bracing, high-seas confrontation that turns into an existential reckoning, Styx traffics in spare, sharp, urgent moral clarity. An unflappable German ER doctor named Rike (Susanne Wolff), clearly independent, fiercely capable, wordlessly loads up her boat and sets off for Ascension Island. She seeks a sanctuary, essentially in the middle of nowhere, of untouched nature designed by Charles Darwin to be “wild but planned,” as Rike describes it over her VHF radio.

That also provides an apt description of her life, where the seemingly untethered woman, with no sign of romantic attachments or family commitments, enjoys the challenge of confronting a feral world—as long as she’s in control.

But nothing has prepared her for the humanitarian crisis she accidentally faces after a ferocious storm passes and sunny skies reveal teeming hordes of desperate Africans. North of Cape Verde, west of Mauritania, Rike still sits close enough to civilization that she can call the local Coast Guard. Except they don’t want to help.

“Do not intervene,” they command. “Your presence provokes additional chaos.” They tell her help is on its way, but 10 hours later no one has arrived. Meanwhile, people jump off the boat and drown. One barely conscious survivor actually makes it over to her vessel. He’s exhausted from dehydration, suffering from infections, and has chemical burns. “Dozens of people are going to die,” she calls the Coast Guard in desperation. “It’s a deathtrap. Over.” Their response: silence.

With Styx, director Wolfgang Fischer has made a gripping maritime nailbiter with a political conscience, a cross between survivalist adventure and a theoretical What If? dilemma more suited for dinner-party conversation. Some might ding the airtight thriller for its reductive plot. But others will recognize a spare, taut exercise in filmmaking. An intensively visual story seeped in sweeping nautical vistas, Fischer and Künzel’s script contains very little dialogue and relies heavily on Wolff’s superb performance as the conflicted overachiever. Her character, a congenital problem-solver whose life is literally devoted to triage,  suddenly meets her match. How do you help in a helpless situation?

Styx runs a brief but deceptively-powerful 94 minutes, but it sticks with audiences long after it’s over. Where does humanity begin and end? Why does this curiously misanthropic person suddenly care about lives of others? What kind of relationship does she have with society anyway? And how pyrrhic a victory is she actually willing to face? Altruism and cruelty are razor-thin sides of the same coin in international waters. And indifference isn’t an option.

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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