Babies bring out the best in people. Even heartened thugs.
Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), another name for “thug”, is a South African hoodlum who lives a pretty rough life on the street where he constantly gets by on a code of violence, robbery, and in some cases, murder. Though Tsotsi and his gang of gangster buddies are quite known around their parks for being the kinds of guys you don’t want to be caught alone in an alleyway with, so far, they’ve been making good, hustling through the streets, which is why it’s almost no surprise that everyone they meet is absolutely afraid of them. However, late one night, after casually shooting a woman and stealing her car, Tsotsi discovers a baby in the back-seat. Having no clue what to do with it, he decides to take it home and care for it the best that he can. While he doesn’t know the slightest thing about reasonable childcare, he still finds the best ways imaginable, and in the process, learns more about himself and his own humanity as well. Then again, there is the fact that, at the end of the day, he’s still a criminal – one who, mind you, is being searched for slowly, but surely for the crime he has committed.
Tsotsi won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar back in 2006, and while it may not have definitely been deserving of it (my choice would have been either Paradise Now or Sophie Scholl), there’s still something to see in that it presents a story that we’ve seen, time and time again, and give it a bit of a spin. Writer/director Gavin Hood takes what is essentially a redemption tale, but pack it with all sorts of grit, violence, and crime, that you hardly notice the heart it apparently has. In the first half-hour, actually, we see the title character himself, not just help kill one person, but intentionally injure two others, and do it all while seeming as if he has no problem for that. It’s actually quite shocking and disturbing to watch a character do and act this way, without any remorse whatsoever.
However, that’s why Hood’s portrayal of this Johannesburg ghetto is actually engaging.
We hardly ever do see movies about characters like these ones; the low-life’s, the scumbags, the crooks, the ones we’d much rather not focus on when we think of the society/world we live in. But the fact is that these sorts of people do exist and whether or not we want to admit, they are human beings and not only do they have all sorts of feelings, but they too have backstories that make them who they are today, whether it be peaceful citizens, or the same old evil-doers. That’s why Hood’s direction of where he takes this story, despite not being all that surprising, still works because it gives greater focus on the kinds of character that most movies shy away from, or afraid of ever trying to humanize.
Hood isn’t scared, and because of that, Tsotsi’s situation, while a tad contrived, still tugs at plenty of heartstrings. Most of this has to do with the fact that Presley Chweneyagae is so good in the role, that he feels like an absolute natural. While he has the perfect pissed-off face for the kind of bad person that Tsotsi is made out to be in the first-half, he also finds a way to make himself seem believable as a kind-loving, understandable human being. Sure, it takes him a bit longer to get in the swing of doing the right thing, but for the most part, the transition he goes through is believable, if not just because of the characterization we get from Hood’s screenplay, but because Chweneyagae himself feels like he fully becomes this character. We can hate him one second for doing something absolutely immoral and vile, while the next scene, find a way to reach out and sympathize with him, for doing something that isn’t just humane, but nice.
So rarely do we get these kinds of frustratingly compelling characters who, despite not always making the best decisions, still feel like real human beings we could meet on the street.
And sure, while you wouldn’t want to meet a character like Tsotsi, or any others like him, on the streets, he’s still one that’s easy to believe in and not just a film-maker’s idea of what “a-bad-guy-turned-good-guy” is. Which is why when we do get all of the flashbacks and peers into Tsotsi’s life growing up, it really does help us see this character for all that he is; we may not like all of the decisions he’s made as an older person, but we still get a clear idea of where all those bad decisions came from. Hood isn’t forcing us to like this character, but it’s still pretty hard not to want to give him a hug.
As for the rest of Tsotsi, like I said, it’s pretty conventional stuff. Everything concerning the baby-kidnapping case itself seems a bit silly and almost like an afterthought. While it would have been incredibly controversial for Tsotsi to just get rid of the baby as soon as he found it was in his possession (because therefore, we’d have no movie), the movie also puts itself into a corner of not knowing how to resolve its conflict, or most importantly, come to an end. So therefore, we get this half-baked cliff-hanger that leaves more questions in the air, rather than it actually does answering. Sure, we get an idea of where certain character’s lives may go to after the movie is over, but there’s a still feeling that maybe Hood had one or two more scenes planned, and decided to just end it when he felt like he found the right bow to tie it all up.
Problem is, it isn’t the right bow and it’s not tied together perfectly.
Didn’t matter to the Academy, though, so who cares what I have to say!
Consensus: Despite taking on a slightly conventional path, Tsotsi still feels raw and insightful enough of a crime-drama to paint a clear picture of its protagonist and the other characters movies far too often shy away from.
7 / 10