Susanne Wolff is excellent as a sailor who encounters a sinking ship with dozens of passengers. (Courtesy photo)

‘Styx’ a thrilling sea-set morality tale

Titled for the mythological river separating the worlds of the living and the dead, “Styx” centers on a German doctor and yachtswoman instructed by authorities not to provide help to refugees whose boat is sinking. Though it may have more message than story, “Styx” (opening Friday at the Roxie) is hardly the kind of thriller that quickly exits your brain.

Austrian filmmaker Wolfgang Fischer (“What You Don’t See”) combines a woman vs. nature adventure with a morality parable in this blend of “All Is Lost” and “Arctic” with a female protagonist and overriding topical element.

Rike (Susanne Wolff), an emergency doctor in Cologne, Germany, departs from Gibraltar on her small yacht, headed for the paradisiacal Ascension Island in the Atlantic — her dream vacation spot.

After a stretch of peace and sunshine, a voice on the boat’s crackly radio warns that a storm is approaching and, with a tinge of sexism, assures Rike that coastal authorities will assist her should problems arise.

Rike capably weathers the torrent. But then she sees, near the horizon, a sinking fishing boat. It’s filled with possibly 100 refugees waving their arms and crying for help.

Aware that her boat is too small to accommodate them, Rike, following maritime protocol, informs authorities about the sinking ship.

A voice states that help will arrive and instructs Rike to stay out of the situation. When rescuers don’t materialize, the passengers begin jumping overboard, with harrowing results.

In a visceral passage, Rike drags an unconscious survivor — a boy named Kingsley — out of the sea and onto her ship and, in emergency mode, treats him medically. Once revived, Kingsley tells Rike his sister was on the boat. He insists she help the desperate passengers.

Rike’s continued Mayday calls yield no hope. “Our company has a strict policy on these cases; I really can’t risk my job,” a voice from a nearby vessel says.

Uncharacteristically indecisive, Rike struggles to decide whether to obey orders or save lives.

While the film is, on one level, a message movie, it could use more juice and narrative content. Yet it succeeds as a ticking-clock thriller as it explores deeper realities, such as how the same water that leads people like Rike to paradise can prove deadly for countless, less fortunate, others.

As an indictment of indifference, the movie is neither preachy nor heavy-handed.

Rike, wisely conceived by Fischer and co-writer Ika Kunzel, is a complicated protagonist, not a white savior. She’s more than the embodiment of liberal European privilege. She and Kingsley don’t form a phony Hollywood bond.

Wolff, an excellent German actress, conveys, with little dialogue, Rike’s internal conflicts and frustrations with authorities and herself. She’s convincing as a sailor as well.

Gedion Oduor Wekesa, a Nairobi schoolboy, powerfully plays Kingsley.

Three stars
Starring: Susanne Wolff, Gedion Oduor Wekesa
Written by: Wolfgang Fischer, Ika Kunzels
Directed by: Wolfgang Fischer
Not rated
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

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