31 Million Reasonsby Kavish Chetty / 12.01.2012
I don’t know precisely where the artistic impulse for endless local crime fiction emerged. It’s much easier to see its dark inspiration in the seething, throbbing streets of South Africa. This place is ostensibly, in the phrase of Mike Nicol, “killer country”. Full of chaos and questless violence, it’s the kind of place where a character of his can cough out (quilled in archetypal genre language: nasty, brutish, short) “You want to kill anybody, you take them to South Africa. Bam. Sounds like it’s part of the background noise.” This character’s cynical take on post-Apartheid South Africa is vindicated a few years later by Dewani’s homicide tourism. And all the authors are marching in line, seduced by the tortures of the third world. Why? The genre is broadly patched together with a series of pulp clichés which exhaust themselves very quickly (I’m mildly elitist here). Resigning itself to an essential exoticisation of violence, the form is constrained, cut-off: much is left on the peripheries of its vision. It thrives – like Congolese thriller Viva Riva! – on an arguably defeatist premise: this country is splitting apart with bad politics, gangrenous from old wounds, and its excesses and plasma are choking up the gutters. This is reality. So let’s turn it into a funfair.
If you’ve got a basic plot – a kind of skeleton key – that’s as old as the early 20th century, how do you restore its lost vigour a hundred years later? The answer is exoticisation. You’ve got to rejig that old whore, give ‘er something special. In the case of 31 Millions Reasons, that special something could be as simple as a set of gold teeth. This film leads you through all the tourist circuits of Chatsworth – a jungleland of Injuns being nasty – and its exotic accouterments are catalogued here: quarter bunny-chow, use of the phrases “lukkar”, “fullah”, “marcher” and “bru”; mid-90s three series BMWs, and gold-toothed grins from swarthy alcoholics. This is a “classic” heist caper made available to its uniqueness through the above signifiers.
One more tangent to surf before we get into narrative. There was a local crime drama released a couple of months ago called How To Steal 2 Million. If you want a perfect example of how generic these movies are, look at the structural similarities between them. Both have “million” in the title, immediately. Both rely on their locale to justify reigning logics of greed. (in the one, Johannesburg, which we are told is a “jungle”; in the other a Durban township) Both have morally ambiguous lead characters who live beyond the fringes of an underworld. Both lead characters drive incongruous vintage cars. Both concern men with dark pasts who want to go clean, but are lured by one final sin before they can get there. Both concern the temptation of perfect heist jobs. Both perfect heist jobs go awry. Both do not have satisfying epilogues in line for our protagonists. Both these films distinguish themselves only through tone and dress. How to Steal is serious, dimly-lit pseudo-noir set in black Jo’burg. 31 Million is off-beat and comical in an Injun suburb. (and, as an aside, is more watchable) This is the same film in two different iterations and it joins the ranks of thousands more internationally: genre swill.
Neither of these films was designed to contribute much to the state of social discourse beyond the familiar platitudes of how underworlds corrode at the moral fibre of conflicted individuals, wearying their last nerve. 31 Million is about a corrupt cop with a conscience, which places him firmly in the above territory. Leading a new recruit on the force through humid, slummy streets he says that “being from Chatsworth means never having been anywhere else.” This is merely a pinprick of wisdom – one glancing existential punch – that is elsewhere missing. These films work plot against credulity. They work against your capacity to believe through the use of dialogue without a human dimension and plot development which is so generic – so overdeployed – as to now seem unreal. (the film opens up with some bank clerk saying “sorry sir, I can’t help you” in machinic register, a line of dialogue that came straight off the heartless assembly line.) Somewhere, we all know that human life is juxtaposed in a dialectical relationship with that of the screen: it’s become as generic, a simulation of things seen and absorbed. But still, our bodies organically reject it. The familiarity, the convention, the boundedness of films like these make them seem alien.
After being told that a bank liquidation has cost him his half million rand savings, Ronnie (the lead), a corrupt cop decides to collaborate on a heist with a scumbag security guard who owes him money, and his aggressively shoot-first burly brother. Ronnie is the nicest guy in the film – surrounded by meat-heads and delinquents – so he’s the only one who keeps an off-kilter moral equilibrium: the rest are fully venal. After assembling his crew, they steal their loot. But during the getaway, they knock over a vagrant. Rather than murder him, as Ronnie’s brother wants to do, Ronnie decides to give him some marcher and tell him to shut up about the whole thing. This act of charity proves to be the major weakness in the operation, and slowly the law starts to sniff out the culprits, causing our corrupted cast to perform an ever-expanding charade of murders and cover-ups.
But there is an interruption at work before the first reel. The title is ruinous for three reasons. Firstly, it ruins the plot. Ronnie and gang (and hence the audience, as they are largely the narrators through which the plot is exposed) aren’t supposed to know that there was 31 million clams in the stolen loot, which means any possible surprise (and corresponding surge in anxiety) about this excess is spoiled pre factum. There can’t have been 31 million reasons to effect the heist, because they didn’t know there was 31 million dossier in the pay-off. And lastly, 31 million reasons implies that each single rand is reason enough to commit an egregious armed robbery. Not even in Chatsworth is one buck enough to compel larceny.
Truth is, however, as a casual viewing experience 31 Million is – I say this to probable chagrin of everyone who worked on it – disappointingly watchable. It’s not cyclonically bad. It’s not interrogatively good. It’s just somewhere hanging there in the middle, a competent crime drama genre picture. The first half coasts by without thrill. But in the later stages, the thrill factor seems to make an entrance – if briefly – and things going wrong have a tension about them. There are some well-staged sequences, and the occasional flicker of a gorgeous shot. (look for the cast swathed up in the orange throb of dim lights as they crack open their ill-gotten cases) The problem with this is that South African cinema has already reached that unholy juncture: they’re all technically competent without being thematically interrogative. They’ve reached the point of being Hollywood-lite and evolution is worth aching for at the moment. The film never rises above its ambitions to play to its target audience without accepting any challenges en route. It’s executed adequately and uniformly. You get what you paid for. What you get is form: crime fiction, evacuated of political content, mute on social issues and existing to plumb the locale for disguises, covering up an essential sameness.
There is a rulebook in circulation. Anyone who is concerned about the status of cinema in this country needs to hunt down that rulebook, burst in on a directors’ dinner party and steal it. Rearrange the pages, scrawl in black ink all over all the schema and tables, or better yet – immolate the thing. Leave film-makers masterless and see what they come up with on their own. I guarantee you it won’t be bound with these slavish injunctions. 31 Million Reasons is not unique in its faults: it’s national, it’s symptomatic. I think we’ve correlatively managed to meet the Hollywood technique. (I say, correlatively, because their corpulent budgets mean their films – across the board – are going to be better than ours) Call me pleasureless, but I think we need to encourage a more intellectual cinema culture. And part of this is the self-consciousness to commit the crime-thriller genre to an examination of its place and content in South African society.
*Releases January 13, 2012.