Tsotsi is a teenager gangster in the slums of Johannesburg. He’s a bad guy “ this much is clear, or at least that’s what he wants everyone to think. His faÃ§ade at least is all tough guy “ maybe that’s how he’s survived, a creation of his environment. Take the opening sequence in which he and his gang murder a man on the train for his cash. When one of their number, Boston, expresses remorse, Tsotsi beats him mercilessly and spits on his prone body. Up to this point, Tsotsi’s face has been a blank mask, but perhaps the events have shaken him more than he would like the others to believe. He stumbles out into the night, ending up in a rich neighbourhood. Here, he ends up carjacking a woman, shooting her in the process. He speeds off in the car, but then he hears crying, and realises that there’s a baby in the back seat. And that’s when everything changes.
A lot of action is packed into this opening sequence and to be honest it’s not handled particularly well. The pace is frantic, the acting is a little uneven, and the locations feel somehow stagey. It’s also oddly lit and there are a lot of reaction shots that wouldn’t be out of place in a daytime soap.
But once Tsotsi has the baby, and decides to keep it, everything slows down a bit and the film settles into a rhythm. No longer lurching between plot points, the film starts to explore Tsotsi’s life in the slum and the action has a more natural feel to it. The actors even seem to grow into their roles, strange to say, given films are never shot in order.
We even get past Tsotsi’s emotionless faÃ§ade and into his head a little, uncovering the details of the past that have made him how he is. We also see his struggles to feed and look after the baby, while at the same time hiding it from his friends and neighbours. It’s never made clear why he decides to keep the baby, but what is clear is that he forms an emotional attachment to it that might offer him a shot at some form of redemption.
After a discouraging start, Tsotsi grows into an interesting portrait of a character and the environment that has brutalised him “ a snapshot of the slums around Johannesburg riddled with crime and poverty that offers little in the way of hope for its inhabitants. Tsotsi himself becomes a more rounded character as the film progresses, although the motives behind his actions remain frustratingly elusive.
Oscar voters obviously saw something in it, as the movie took away the award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 78th Academy Awards, and gave writer/director Gavin Hood the opportunity to direct in Hollywood. Unfortunately, he used that opportunity to make X Men Origins: Wolverine. But he can at least be satisfied with the thought that his movie that year was better than the one that took Best Picture “ for Tsotsi’s success came in the same year as Crash‘s.