Retributionby Kavish Chetty / 11.08.2011
Retribution is cyborgish cinema. You know the type of film I’m talking about: it’s been programmed with a machine-like logic; all the rules inputted and precisely plotted. The machine is capable of following these rules excellently – here it’s governed by the regime of the “psychological thriller” – but its mechanistic nature keeps interfering. Of course, the audience is made of synapse and bone and we rebel against something sprung from so artificial an impulse. We crave something warm, natural, imperfect as life itself. While machines can follow the rules, they lack the creative human aspect – an ability to reassemble rules, make them breathe, make them real. Retribution suffers from this because the immediate sense is that we’ve been here before; we know the shape, tug and heft of this thing. Its programmatic logic means that the film needs to answer to a double-guilt, because not only does its world have a strange and slumberous alien energy, but it bypasses some of the delicious allegories crafted in its setup and opts instead for a well-worn retread through some classic clichés of the genre.
It didn’t seem like this at the beginning, however. I am tempted to say that there is a defining moment at which I knew that Retribution was not playing at anything provocative. The lead character thinks he’s seen something in the distance. He cautiously moves in closer. He sidles up to the outhouse were he thinks he saw this ghostly thing. In the background deep bass is grumbling; a crescendo is building. He approaches the entrance, still stealthily and the soundtrack is announcing something sinister. Here it comes, he’s reached the door. Faint-hearted, cover your eyes or plug your ears, because the visual and aural setup is a thunderous omen. Slam! The door flies open! And, and, and… it’s the dog. Now you see, this is a cheap trick of horror cinema and everyone expects it but still silently prays for its subversion. When it was happily and consciously unsubverted, I knew exactly where I was. I could cite the exact co-ordinates of my mind. I’d been here before a thousand times over.
I’ve approached this thing obliquely with good reason. Retribution has as its primary attraction its sense of enigma; its mysteriousness. Writing a review on this requires me to do a ludicrous fandango around the actual plot in case I give something away. But if I do give more than a few things away, I want to justify it like this: you would have figured it out within the first couple of minutes. And if not within the first couple of minutes, then shortly after that – and if still you can’t get it (we won’t judge you, but frankly you would have to be brain-damaged. Or American) then there are about fifteen opportunities to figure it out en route to the grand reveal. The setup is this: A retired judge (Joe Mafela) has taken to an isolated cabin in the middle of nowhere (or the Karoo, if you like) to focus on writing his memoirs. He has a deadline coming up in three weeks. The cabin has poor telephonic reception and he is essentially cut off from reality. While busying about procrastinating and chopping wood outside, he encounters a hiker simply named Alan (Jeremy Crutchley). Alan has steered off course and the judge offers him a place for the evening. What we have now are two strangers alone in a cabin in the centre of an infinite wilderness of desert.
Two people thrust together in the middle of nowhere – can you imagine the sheer opportunity here for thematic exploration? It’s a clash of opposing forces under conditions of pressure (isolation, the enclosed space of the cabin). And it helps that our principal characters are about as oppositional as you can get. The judge is old-aged, black, disorganized, with alcohol as the vice he keeps in his bottom desk-drawer. Alan, on the other hand, is something far more bizarre. He’s middle-aged, white, efficient, with a definite sense for (as he announces nauseatingly on several occasions) “the order of things”. Now potential spoilers are going to start waterfalling around this point, so if you want to watch this film with your virginity intact, best high-tail it now (although, I assure you: I won’t give away the actual secret). Alan has an agenda up his sleeve and is not the innocent, mislaid hiker that he led us to believe (but come on – you knew that). But when the judge figures out that his guest is not what he seems, Alan’s motive is not immediately supplied. It has been hinted at rather coercively, but it could all be a ruse. We can only suspect what Alan is. Alan has a robotic personality which also helps split open the possibilities of his interpretation. When he confronts the judge he chastises him for things like “your indulgence”, attacks him for his lack of conviction, and reprimands him by saying “you’re weak.”
Wild speculation #1: Alan, with his demonstrably pseudo-Aryan Übermensch dialogue – his meticulous mannerisms, sense for cleanliness and order, aura of superiority – is the white superego of the African nations, returned from history to haunt the present order for its political failings. The “indulgence” that he speaks of is the decadence by which all African countries have bloated their divides between rich/poor, succumbed to chaos, ineffectual bureaucracies. The judge, as a gatekeeper of the law – with his vices, sloppiness, languor; in short, everything Alan is not – marks for us the black half of this metaphor. Alan is the corrective; the pre-independence figure of the perfect white bureaucrat, standing in as a symbol for a history in which he was king and order was defined according to his own private chaos. This sets up a violently racialised dynamic ripe with the possibilities of nuance. There is a chance here for dialogue and interaction between them to mirror all sorts of political allegory.
Wild speculation #2: Alan is a figment of the judge’s imagination – this is really the one everyone will cotton on to. Alan represents the private repressed guilt of the judge, surfacing precisely because he is working on his memoirs and confronting a deep reservoir of unease and dissatisfaction with his life. Alan is an externalisation of the order and sobriety which the judge always yearned after but was too venal to reach. This explains the constant attacks on his weakness and indulgence – some deep part of him was dislodged when the memoir-writing threw him back into history and it’s positively infected his present tense. Thing is thematically speaking, this interpretation leads us to the same route as speculation #1: national allegory, the judge is a part of the whole. Possibly the most famous American Marxist of the 20th century, Fredric Jameson, once wrote an essay in which he said that all African literature could be read as a national allegory, a story of the nation. This is really a position of such indefensible bullshit as to not warrant critique – we all know of treasure-troves of African art which resist such an easy, reductionist and totalising explanation. But if the thesis is not true, it doesn’t mean that the temptation isn’t. There is – and I think the tendency is not disputable even if the interpretations always are – an overwhelming desire to situate the metaphor of cinema and literature produced on this continent as representing a struggle with nationhood: usually this is in the struggle of a rising elite, or conflict between hugely disparate economic classes, or friction with the grand project of modernity, or conflict with capitalism. We want to see the metaphors ultimately not as private, existential crises as we do with the novels of say, Phillip Roth or John Updike, but as national allegories. Whether or not they actually are is not the point, and if anything local cinema of recent has shown a patricidal will to reject these obsessions with race and nation and turn instead to traditional European models of storytelling.
But, I’m here to inform you that Retribution rejects both of these opportunities and chooses instead the most dire literalist interpretation of why these two characters meet. It turns at that point into a stock-standard psychological-thriller affair, replete with hints of torture, action and suspense.
I have been critiquing the slick, machinic tone of this film; I dislike its by-the-book nature. But let’s not forget that well-oiled machines produce efficiently. Some rules are codified justly, and though the rules stifle Retribution, they don’t in and of themselves reduce it to worthless watching. Cinematographically, for example, the film is beautiful. It is dry and desaturated with amazing panoptic shots and a sure sense for capturing the claustrophobia of the cabin, and the tension of its inhabitants. The film seethes with suspense and anxiety at its best – I admit of having a loose kind of fear at the beginning (which is fantastic), but it kind of petered out very early on when I figured out what was going on. The soundtrack is really overblown and based around a couple of tenured ambient sounds of the genre. If at times it makes the suspense what it is, at other times it distracts like fat, spluttering fly. And something needs to be said here about Jeremy Crutchley’s performance. He is clearly an excellent actor, but the role that he has been cast into, the things he has been asked to do, make his performance very, very irritating. Anyone would struggle to make some of wooden, platitudinous dialogue he is working with actually breathe. His character is an annoyance: a vexed repressive hyper-orderly git. And again, he plays the role, obviously as directed, with a very straightforward interpretation on the mechanical human being, with an emotional core that keeps short circuiting his order. Joe Mafela, if I may be bold, I thought was doing a really godawful job acting. And when the two of them were together – which is where the character acting and interaction really needed to shine – it was also just stilted and unconvincing.
The above criticisms are actually a shame because they mar what would otherwise be an enjoyable – if over-polished and standard-issue – thriller. Don’t write this one off for its inability to provoke. If you like this sort of film then you won’t be wholly disappointed. I’d say for quick comparative purposes, it’s like the film Hard Candy (which, I may add I personally thought was one of the worst films of 2005). But ultimately, I feel that Retribution squanders its symbolic capital and reveals itself as highly-professional, exceedingly well-made, but still cold and emotionally desolate film-making.
Retribution releases 19 August.