Retribution opens by panning across an arid, bleached landscape with a dramatic male voice-over saying something about justice and the order of things.
Soon, the camera settles on a patch of blood seeping into the dusty ground outside a rustic cottage, instantly establishing the film’s thriller genre. Within minutes, we determine that a retired judge (Joe Mafela) is on a writing retreat in this isolated cabin, where he is virtually cut off from the outside world.
On day two, while the judge is attempting to chop wood, a white, middle-aged hiker (Jeremy Crutchley) appears, saying he is lost. The judge offers him a place for the night. There is a subtle tension in this moment and the stage is set for what could be a compelling psychological thriller between opposite characters in a pared-down setting.
The judge is old, black and disorganised. The middle-aged white hiker is hyper-organised, with an obsessive-compulsive need for precision. The hiker calls it “putting things in order”, a statement repeated throughout the film.
He also paternalistically chastises the judge for his “indulgences” and calls him “weak”.
The first half of the film moves as painfully slowly as the old judge, who does a lot of aimless shuffling around in his dressing gown. I found myself wondering whether I was going to be able to sit through the entire film. Somewhere towards the middle, though, the story must have absorbed me because I stopped sighing loudly and time whizzed by.
Not that this makes the obvious flaws of South Africa’s first “psychological thriller” any less remarkable. Nor does it make it any less noticeable that, yet again, the National Film and Video Fund has backed a post-1994, hackneyed “crisis of masculinity” theme, reflecting the anxieties in white, especially white male, identity as a result of a politically transformed South Africa.
White view of the educated black class
The elderly black judge had, years before, made an appalling misjudgment. Now the judge must pay, hence the obvious title.
His character starts out as somewhat believable, with the markings of the white view of the educated black class: he is overweight, well spoken, even dignified in a borderline-Oxford sort of way. But get further into the story and he is exposed as corrupt, indolent and inhumane.
Of course he is. Don’t we know by now that all educated and rich black men in South Africa are not really legitimate and open to all sorts of ignobleness? Since when has any South African film told us otherwise? Add to that an element of dim-wittedness, as the judge fails to make obvious connections, plus the fact that the judge is undisciplined, in a shambles, unable to run his own life, let alone a country.
Is this is not an obvious metaphor for the burgeoning sense of anger and superiority among the white middle class towards the new political order?
The Crutchley character is a previously noble white man driven to the brink of madness by this crooked black man’s behaviour. He is consumed by angst and anger and, on top of that, he is driven to do something about his anger, because, in contrast to the lazy, corrupt natives, educated or not, white men are driven and active and they need to show the black man who the boss is. Eish!
I don’t know if the filmmaker intended to make a film with this political subtext or signify the crisis of white masculinity — a scenario in which black men are most often vilified, whether it be for their wealth, their poverty, their greed or their lust, or simply for being economically desperate enough to beg you to buy a colourful feather duster.
I suspect these choices were based on unconscious beliefs in which the inevitable result would be that the undisciplined and corrupt judge had to be black and the domineering, ordering, driven phallocrat had to be white. If he had reversed the roles, it may have been more interesting.
Then again, if the success of this film was reliant on a script that tried to be a gripping psychological thriller, boasting a duo of mesmerising performances, it failed.
This is a dialogue-driven film and in these sparse settings talk equals action, which in turn relies on the verbal and gestural give-and-take between the actors.
Mafela and Crutchley play their roles with an awkwardness that shouts as loudly as the overstated music score.
I suspect this is the result of the director’s insecurity, because you can also feel this movie’s gears grinding throughout, first in the rote suspense mechanics and later in the inelegant delivery of uninteresting dialogue and the stock, over-directed action scenes.
A more mature and confident director would have been less neurotic and less methodologically mechanical.
Yet Retribution was not entirely devoid of suspense; there were those moments that drew me in. But there weren’t enough for me to say that this film is likely to make waves on the local or international scene, which is a great pity, given that it is one of South Africa’s first attempts at a thriller.
Perhaps it is time to scrutinise more closely the message in the scripts that are coming out of our mainstream film industry and look towards counter-narratives that break away from the mould of the hetero-white-male problematic, told through the same racially skewed filters, over and over again.
Surely it is also time to leave the Hollywood model alone and find our own authentic narrative and filmic style that does not end in third-class, copycat films.
For more on Retribution, see our special report.