Adapting Faulkner’s 1931 novel to the Soviet Union in the “second half of 1984," Balabanov’s film takes the American author’s most sensationalistic offering as a fit basis for its own look at the sick soul of the Soviet era. And just as Faulkner’s novel was long derided as a mere potboiler (not least by the author himself who considered it a “cheap idea… deliberately conceived to make money”) so Balabanov’s film is, on the surface, no more than a pile of lurid details, the stuff of a dispensable exploitation film. But where Sanctuary has since gone on to take its place, if not among the best loved of the Nobel laureate’s novels, at least as a worthy object of study, Cargo 200 seems destined to remain a marginal item, an object of mere cultish adulation. Which is fine, since, given the film’s matter-of-fact brutality and its utter lack of empathy for just about anyone, it could scarcely be otherwise, but as a bracingly acidic portrait of a society diseased at nearly every level and the attendant political implications of such a portrait, it probably shouldn’t be so easily dismissed.
Per Faulkner, the film reaches an early crisis point when a drunken young man takes a woman (the daughter of a high-ranking government official) to a rural bootlegger’s house to pick up some swill. When the man passes out, the woman is left to the mercy of the menacing denizens of the country shack: Aleksei, the head man in the operation - a taciturn individual with odd utopian ideals - his Vietnamese handyman and Zhurov, a blank-faced stranger who shoots the latter with a rifle, blames it on the former and then proceeds to rape the unwitting woman with the aforementioned vodka bottle before kidnapping her and holding her captive in his apartment.
So far, all straight out of Faulkner. But the final third of the film takes things considerably further than the source novel and the effect of these deviations is to offer up a bitter critique of the institutions of the Soviet era that Balabanov lived through. If Faulkner seemed more concerned with offering something like a universal look at the possibilites of evil inherent in human nature, then the Russian filmmaker is much more culturally specific in his concerns. So his first major departure from Sanctuary is to make his principal villain an official in the local police department. While the equivalent character in Faulkner, Popeye, is given no occupation outside the criminal underworld, Balabanov uses Zhurov’s profession to neatly conflate official law and debased immorality, savagely exposing the ruling apparatus of Soviet Russia.
And the savageness of the critique only increases the further Balabanov’s imagination runs wild. Where Faulkner goes relatively easy on his young girl after she's kidnapped, granting her at least a provisional freedom of movement, Balabanov seems to savor the sickening details of Angelika’s unmitigated confinement, which involves her being chained to a bedpost, sharing a bed with two dead bodies (including her fiancé) and being subject to rape. Then Zhurov’s discharge of his official duties is scarcely less debased than his extra-curricular activities. He oversees the savage beating of prisoners and matter-of-factly shoots the bootlegger rather than allow him to go to trial for the crime that he (Zhurov) committed. In Faulkner the resultant court case leads to a miscarriage of justice, but in Balabanov justice can scarcely hope to extend even that far.
But Zhurov is far from the only vehicle of the filmmaker's critique. Balabanov's Soviet Union is a teeming world of industrial waste, misguided foreign campaigns (bodies are shipped back daily from Afghanistan), and cheap opportunism. The film’s characterizations range from the terrifying (Zhurov, of course) to the parodic (the professor of “scientific atheism” who attempts to espouse an ethical basis for the Party) to the merely loathsome (the young boy who leaves Angelika to her fate, then sets off on a petty money-making scheme) but all are more or less dismal and all are more or less typical per the filmmaker’s jaundiced view of his nation’s past. In Cargo 200, the institutions may be thoroughly rotten but so are the individuals who comprise or who aspire to comprise those institutions. Drawing on the classic novel with arguably the least hopeful view of human nature, Balabanov both extends and particularizes his source, taking Faulkner’s study of the contamination of evil and applying it in stunningly vivid measure to a singularly hellish moment in his own nation’s history.