Treurgrond is a South African film about farm murders, directed by Darryl Roodt and starring controversial pop star and actor, Steve Hofmeyr. According to the film's website, the most frequently asked questions address its political agenda, entertainment value for non-extremists and whether it features racial discrimination. While it answers these questions as you'd expect, it's interesting in and of itself that these would be potential concerns for a movie goer.
The film is fictional, centring on a small Afrikaans farming community in South Africa, bracing themselves as a wave of farm attacks continues. As anxiety levels spread and tensions mount, Lukas Van Staden (Hofmeyr), takes it upon himself to protect his family, friends and farm. We journey with a number of characters: Lukas, his wife, his brother's family, a local teacher and two detectives who interact with a fervent community of farmers.
While it claims it's not politically-motivated, but rather trying to generate awareness, there are serious undercurrents. Steve Hofmeyr's involvement already suggests an agenda, leveraging his celebrity to either absolve him of recent controversy and simultaneously acting as a figurehead for Afrikaans pride and solidarity under duress.
While he's regarded as a bad boy in the Afrikaans music scene, infamous for his controversial remarks, he still wields an audience of lovers and haters. Casting him as the lead, gives the film an edge and while he's not known for his acting ability, he has screen presence and his performance is quite captivating.
His unofficial co-lead is Jana Strydom as Helena Schoeman, a versatile actress, who is almost unrecognisable in this hard-and-fast role as a detective trying to get to the bottom of the farm murders. Erica Wessels plays his concerned wife, Nellie. Richard Lukunku feels the tension as Sergeant Morena, while Shaleen Surtie Richards and Boikie Pholo bring their wealth of experience to the table as supporting characters in Katie and Daniel Lebona.
"Oh look... and here's another one of me on the tractor."
Darryl Roodt is a prolific film-maker, who knows how to manage his resources, creating some truly majestic moments of heartbreaking honesty and raw beauty. While his credits include accomplished and important South African films such as: Sarafina, Cry the Beloved Country, Yesterday, Little Oneand Winnie Mandela, it's also dotted with some less remarkable efforts.
Unfortunately, while Treurgrond wrestles with a contentious issue and had the potential to be a drama of the same magnitude as, As It Is In Heaven, it will be regarded as one of Roodt's "what ifs". He makes some bold artistic choices and leverages our imagination, but there's an inconsistent ebb-and-flow to this rather bleak drama.
Treurgrond features some breathtaking cinematography and hefty themes, but the storytelling is scattershot, the script is underwritten, the direction is heavy-handed at times and it features more adverts than some glossy magazines.
We're split between an obstinate farmer wanting to protect his family and a free-wheeling detective with a huge responsibility. The central theme is simply farm murders... focussing on the state of unrest with much finger-pointing and a growing feeling of helplessness. There are many conversations in this tense atmosphere, but it's stuck in a state of arrested development.
There's no attempt to become what could have been a South African take on Straw Dogs (or an anti-Straw Dogs) or a tense community portrait drama like As It Is In Heaven. Instead, the film throws the contentious situation out there... gets some players to bring it down-to-earth and then waits for the inevitable.
If it weren't for the distracting product placements... a close up of items being checked out at a cashier, montages with agricultural products, scenes in front of branded trucks... you'd think it was a straight propaganda film.
Positioning a generous family man and contributing member of a community as the would-be victim of a senseless act of violence by faceless attackers, while playing on the heightened emotions of an innocent community subjected to a state of violence and an ill-equipped thin blue line... how is that not political? They say there's no racial discrimination, yet Sergeant Morena is under constant scrutiny because he's not a local.
Treurgrond has its heart in the right place, trying to generate renewed awareness and donations towards the plight of those affected by this kind of violence, but it's bound to stir up the emotions of those who see it without entertainment value as a clear and present objective.
This drama often feels like it's on the cusp of something substantial, but is either hampered by laughable product placements, stuck in the mud characters or derailed by its half-hearted subplots and subversive political undercurrents. It promises much, but under-delivers with the filmic equivalent of a cul-de-sac. Given this tone, you could say Steve Hofmeyer was perfect for the role.
Spling reviews A Most violent Year, Tomorrowland and The Visit as broadcast on Talking Movies, Fine Music Radio. Catch Talking Movies on Fridays at 8:20am and Saturdays at 8:15am every week on Fine Music Radio.
A Most Violent Year is another film from J.C. Chandor, whose previous efforts Margin Call and All Is Lost have already earned him a spot as an ambitious writer-director with a melancholic disposition. It stars Oscar Isaac from the equally melancholic Inside Llewyn Davis, who finds himself similarly poised in Hollywood. Both director and star are about mood and subtlety, which is leveraged to great effect in this slow-boiling crime drama thriller.
It's New York City 1981, the most dangerous year in the city's history, as we track an ambitious immigrant as he tries to protect his growing business and his family. A Most Violent Year echoes a young Robert De Niro, not only in the mob mentality and casting of Oscar Isaac, but in the gritty, naturalistic flow. It's like The Deer Hunter if it was set in the city, luring us in with an American Dream story set against the odds and background of a ruthless city of industry.
Oscar Isaac is more of a wallflower when it comes to your typical Hollywood lead. He's not in love with the camera and tends to downplay his performances, trading in nuances rather than home run smiles. He allows Jessica Chastain a strong supporting role as his wife, whose cantankerous flair and dolled up look draw more attention. Their uneasy chemistry and opposites attract head space make it a tense and unpredictable relationship. They're supported by David Oyelowo, Alessandro Nivola and Albert Brooks, underrated actors, who also buy into the slow-and-steady mode of A Most Violent Year.
The tone is subdued and everything about A Most Violent Year falls into this category. The sets, costumes and wardrobe as dull early '80s... the performances are downplayed... the lighting is dim and the pacing is staggered. It's almost like Chandor is trying to effect the film in 1981. While this attention to detail and authenticity adds a layer, it does take some getting used to and tends to drag the 125 minute run time.
"Babe... who do you think I am, Bugsy Malone?"
While the focus is on the drama within a world of corporate sabotage, there are a few sequences that break the slow-burn pace into a flurry of action. One car chase scene is particularly brilliant as we're given an immersive first person perspective on a take down.
A Most Violent Year's tension rests with Abel Morales, whose name serves as a strong hint at what he's all about. He sticks to his principles under mounting pressure and the duress of difficult circumstances. Central to his character is his moral fortitude and his stubborn unwillingness to be swayed by shortcuts and shady business deals. He's willing to risk everything as long as it doesn't tarnish his reputation as a reliable, dependable, trustworthy self-made man.
It's powerful at times, wrestling with mafia style saboteurs and a mystery as to who is behind the constant threat. As a character study, it's compelling... as a crime drama it's slow but sure-handed... and as a thriller, we're catapulted into action almost as suddenly as a Sergio Leone Western. It could have been set in the Wild West, but finds itself in 1981 with a There Will Be Blood temperament and a The Deer Hunter look and feel.
Spling reviews Mad Max: Fury Road, Child 44 and Barefoot as broadcast on Talking Movies, Fine Music Radio. Catch Talking Movies on Fridays at 8:20am and Saturdays at 8:15am every week on Fine Music Radio.