Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), a small time thug, runs with his small gang of delinquents, in a slum in South Africa. Every day, Tsotsi's three pals show up on his doorstep, looking for some direction, some meaning. One of their "jobs" takes them to a large subway station where Tsotsi spies a businessman paying a vendor with cash from his pay envelope. They follow the mark onto a train and the robbery does not go as planned. This is the first incident which will cause the small time thug to begin reevaluating his life. Later, he travels, alone, to an affluent suburb of Johannesburg and waits for someone to come home. As the rain pours down, he spots a BMW drive into a driveway. The female driver runs out of the car, into the rain, trying to get her husband to open the malfunctioning gate. Tsotsi rushes up and car jacks the vehicle, leaving the screaming woman behind. He soon discovers the reason for her frantic pleas.
"Tsotsi", written and directed by Gavin Hood, and based on a novel by Athol Fugard, is a very good film, and a worthy entry by South Africa in this year's race for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards.
The film is about Tsotsi, the changes he makes in his life and the reasons for these changes. He starts off as an amoral, violent thug who doesn't think twice about killing someone for a couple of dollars. He leads his ragtag group of followers, people who are even more desperate than he is, and who are willing to follow him into any situation. Clearly, this makes Tsotsi feel important and he rules them with a scornful frown, the threat of violence always near.
Even though he thinks nothing of killing someone for a few dollars, it is the murder of the businessman which is the turning point. Tsotsi begins to feel maybe there is something wrong here, with him, with his world, with everything. As this change happens, he still acts out, threatening people, harming them, even as he seeks their help or guidance. More telling, these people help him, recognizing the troubled person deep beneath the tough guy surface. At one point, he seeks the help of a single mother, who provides what he wants, but he still finds it necessary to have his gun ready, and waiting. As the story progresses, these feelings of conflict grow and grow, becoming more consuming within him, confusing him even more. Soon, he has to decide which way to go. Will he continue as a criminal or make some effort at reform?
Writer/ Director Gavin Hood manages this process well. At no point do we ever feel Tsotsi will ever be a normal human being, but there are definitely shades of progress throughout. As people offer unlikely guidance and help, he seems to soften a bit here and there, but being a tough guy is all he has ever known. It may be all he ever can be and he desperately clings to his tough guy persona. The film shows us this in a believable way. If he simply became an angel, we wouldn't believe in his transformation, or care about the outcome of his situation. The change is gradual, painful and believable.
Because the transformation is gradual, and still stained by his violent upbringing, we care about his fate. Chweneyagae leads an impressive cast of unknowns (at least in this country) who bring these characters to life. He convincingly portrays Tsotsi's menace and foreboding attitude. He doesn't speak a lot, but his facial expressions display a lot of menace; he merely stares at someone and they shrink back, afraid of the repercussions. At one point, he brutally beats a member of his gang and we suddenly have evidence of what he is capable of.
Most of this film seems drained of theatricality, giving us the impression we are watching a documentary. The one moment that rings slightly false is when Tsotsi takes his gang back to the home of the car jacking victim. They rob the house, holding her husband hostage. Two of the gang members are not quite as believable and appear too cartoonish as they threaten the poor man. This scene seems clearly influenced by American action films and doesn't mesh completely with the rest of the film.
The final scene is very memorable and very moving. You'll have to watch the film to actually find out why. I can't spoil it for you. This is one of those films that are difficult to review. If I talk too much, I'll ruin the impact and give away things that you should experience in the theater.
"Tsotsi" is a very good film, worthy of Academy Award consideration. You would be hard pressed to find a film with more believable characters and a more moving story.