Tsotsi (2005): Conscience of a Killer

This movie is wonderful. It also marks a historic moment on my blog: It’s the first film I’ve reviewed in full that will be awarded the ever-elusive “A” grade.

The word “tsotsi” means “thug” or “robber” in Sesotho, one of the 11 official languages of South Africa. It is the name given to the titular character, a deeply troubled young man living in one of the many shantytowns surrounding Johannesburg, and also the name of this extraordinary film. By selecting a generic term and using it as a name, the film becomes a metaphor about not just the particular “thug” on whom the movie focuses, but everyone who falls into that harsh and desperate category.

Tsotsi is a seemingly unredeemable thief whose depressed and nihilistic attitude towards life causes him to lash out uncontrollably, both at the subjects of his crimes as well as his closest friends. The opening sequence of the film shows Tsotsi and his three fellow thugs watching, following, mugging, and finally needlessly murdering a businessman on a crowded train in plain view of the public.

Tsotsi gang of 4

Later, at the local pub , Tsotsi’s educated friend–whom everyone teasingly calls “Boston” and “The Professor”–starts criticizing Tsotsi for allowing the murder of a decent man. The breaking point comes when Boston questions whether Tsotsi has any meaningful relationships in his life, and here we are afforded the first brief glimpse into the rage and sadness broiling beneath Tsotsi’s turbulent expression. He beats Boston brutally, then storms out of the pub in anger, recklessly hijacks a car in a rich neighborhood, and shoots the car’s owner, a woman, in the process.

Little does Tsotsi know the real reason behind the woman’s distress–after all, when there’s a gun in your face, how much does a car (even a very nice one) matter? The answer comes screaming a few moments later, when Tsotsi discovers something buckled into the backseat…

Tsotsi baby in the backseat

Tsotsi briefly considers abandoning both car and baby alongside the highway, but the little bit of conscience he has left forces him to turn around. He stuffs a paper shopping bag full of blankets, and carefully places the baby inside. The next morning,  he wakes up in his shack and remembers with a jolt what transpired the night before.

With a new, pure presence in his life, Tsotsi starts the slow, sputtering process of transforming himself from a bad man into a better one. The first test comes in the form of a jeering, crippled man who lives in the train station. It’s clear that Tsotsi is sorely tempted to kill him–but instead, he asks the man why, with his broken legs, he bothers to continue living. It’s a surprisingly touching moment, one of only many in the film.

Tsotsi soon realizes that he has no idea how to take care of a baby, and forces a young woman, Miriam, to breastfeed the stolen baby at gunpoint. She reluctantly does so, but eventually–over the course of many fraught conversations–is able to convince Tsotsi to return the baby to its mother. The dynamic between Miriam, who is empathetically portrayed by the beautiful Terry Pheto, and Tsotsi is another highlight of the film, as each slowly learns to trust the other.

Tsotsi Miriam

All the while, dark memories from Tsotsi’s past make their way to the surface. There are flashes of an abusive, alcoholic father; a wasted and AIDS-riddled mother; a beaten dog with a broken back; and an unhappy, rainy night spent sleeping in a concrete drainpipe.  It’s a credit to actor Presley Chweneyagae and director Gavin Hood for not making these sequences overwrought. Instead, they are used to effectively illuminate Tsotsi’s internal struggle, as well as reveal that beneath the discomforting quietness, there is a man grappling with more hardship than any single human being should be expected to recover from.

There are so, so many things that this movie does incredibly well, but I don’t want to spoil the ending. I do recommend, however, that you watch it immediately (it is streaming on Netflix). I will briefly discuss a few more of its strong points before signing off.

Tsotsi baby hill

Tsotsi is a moral story in more than one way. Woven into the exploration of crime is a critique of the vast inequality in South Africa. Tsotsi and his friends never claim that they commit crimes in the hope of becoming rich, for that is simply unrealistic; rather, they commit atrocities out of  economic and emotional desperation. The shantytown in which they live lacks paved roads and plumbing, yet just a train ride away is a gloriously rich neighborhood filled with mansions. When faced with insurmountable odds and that kind of dichotomy, what choice does one have?

The setting and dialogue are also extremely on-point. This movie looks like South Africa. It feels like South Africa. And, perhaps most important, it sounds like South Africa. The characters speak a mish-mash of Sesotho, English, Xhosa, Afrikaans, and who knows what other languages, often switching from one dialect to another mid-sentence. This is how contemporary South Africans speak; they express themselves in multiple languages, and select the right words to fit their meaning from a vast array of options. It’s quite beautiful when you think about it–as for me, limited to English as I am, it’s startling to realize that there are some ideas I can’t even contemplate  because words to describe them don’t exist in my language. The film’s authenticity in these and other aspects simply solidifies its moral message all the more.

And, like many of the films that I love, the ending of Tsotsi is ambiguous. I was watching the film with a group of people at the library, and it took considerable effort not to let the tears spill down my cheeks. When you have sorrow and hope working on that many levels simultaneously, it’s impossible not to be moved.

Overall grade: A

P.S. As I mentioned, Tsotsi is currently streaming on Netflix in the United States. Watch it before it goes away! Roger Ebert also gave the film a perfect rating, if you’d care to read his review.

Image sources:   1   2   3  4

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12 thoughts on “Tsotsi (2005): Conscience of a Killer

  1. What a compelling review! I’m going to check to see whether it’s still on Netflix. I think my husband will really enjoy it, too.

  2. I watched this movie a long, long time ago. So long ago, I’d basically forgotten the storyline. Reading your review and seeing the pic of him finding the baby in the backseat brought it all back. Brilliant movie, and yeah, I cried buckets…

  3. That kid scene was the turn, quite powerful. One thing to point out about the movie is that it is actually a visual feast. I love the cinematography of it.

    1. You’re right, of course 🙂 I was so focused on the story that I wasn’t paying as much attention to the cinematography, shame on me! I suppose it just means I will have to watch it again 🙂

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