State Of Violenceby Kavish Chetty / 27.10.2011
There is, in our film and literature – and I’m sure you’ve felt it too – an obsession with the past; this sense that the “present” we have is dragged deep into the murk of something which came before it. The bolder works threaten to tear open our hastily-sewn sutures and show how the past is always here: the spectres of apartheid, the phantasms of some history. We confront it with dread reluctance too, because the “order of things” (a phrase which Crutchley spits out far too many times in Retribution) is made so illusory by this knowledge. In it is the suggestion that the world we have been given is, as Springsteen melancholically sang, “a dark highway where our sins lie unatoned.” Or you could reach for that wearied phrase from the Bible: “the sins of the father” are visited upon the son. We are poisoned by an old venom that we can’t repent out of existence.
State of Violence is like the Truth & Reconciliation Commission, without the truth and reconciliation. I mean that comically, but it’s also quite true: it’s endless, tortured and bleak without the cheap satisfactions of a staged redemption. This is both an attraction and repulsion – attractive because it’s thematically/atmospherically necessary. But repulsive because like the circus I compared it too earlier, it’s just, and let’s get frank for a second, boring. This isn’t the “how many more times” criticism, because the soul of this theme is in its inescapable reiteration. It’s cyclic and because it’s only ever cured by repression, it will never leave. It’s more just that a great theme is an inert thing; static and lifeless until you animate it with a seductive exposition. State of Violence treats this theme mechanically, adding nothing to its alchemy which is brewing in art all across the planet.
Bobedi (Fana Mokoena) is the film’s main dude. He’s a portly and successful middle-aged black guy – all the accouterments are here: stylish wife, gated double-storey house, E-class Benz. But, and zero congratulations if you figure this one out, he has a “dark past” (shiver). We know the past is there because the opening scene of the film – shot in muted blues – shows him witnessing (or participating in?) the necklacing of a township “traitor”. So, it’s really a foregone conclusion that when he comes strolling into his sleek, minimalist pad after a party, he finds a stranger in his house. The balaclava-clad stranger calls him “Terror” and then shoots and kills his wife. Cue torment of the “fuck you!” and anguished-moans variety. Bobedi thus has a perfect revenge plot set up for him. He knows, because the guy called him “Terror”, a call-sign from his violent youth, that this isn’t some random murder. Time to leave the luxurious estate and cruise into the quilt-worked chaos of the Alexandra Township to find some answers.
What this film would seriously benefit from is strong interior monologue (or even just engagement). In Taxi Driver, rather brilliantly, vengeance was just lashed out against everything. There wasn’t some explicit wound (dead wife, oh lover I shalt avenge thee). But giving the film its dark charisma was Travis Bickle’s murderous monologues. It added depths and dimensions which made him – far as I’m concerned – one of the coolest, most interesting characters in Scorcese’s cinema. It also gave the slow, existential torpor of the film meaning. In State of Violence the slowness of the pursuit is here, but none of the intellectual exercise is. The film is lethargic, seething with unarticulated rage. Even in the final scenes, where the action is dialed up and there are one or two chances to subvert expectation, the film stays on-rails heading to the destination it promised at the beginning without even a mild veer. We are left with the conclusion: well, what does revenge actually accomplish anyway?
There are deep and fantastic existential problems lodged somewhere in-between the lines of the script, but they don’t get explored. There are, however, mentions of the ingratitude of youth, who only remember those same “sins of the father”, but don’t acknowledge that “we fought for the people here”; that we wouldn’t be here (but where are we, exactly?) without the struggles of those same fathers and mothers. There is all the rich suggestion of how the present is constantly shot through with violence, but it tempts itself too strongly to become a very familiar story about the hot-headed pursuit of revenge and its frustrated dead-end possibility. It’s there in the title: State of Violence. Does it say that this is the nation-state of violence, a violent country? Is this the “state” of violence, its condition, the way it works? Rich title but poor exposition. An Honourable Mention goes out to some dude who lives in a derelict kombi on the outskirts of the township, who quotes Chinese idioms at Bobedi (I thought that was cute).
“If you kill again, whatever’s left of your soul is finished,” Bobedi’s brother tells him. Is that right, brother-sir? I’ve been told that so many times but rarer is the chance is to actually see it. Bobedi ends up as a man “troubled by demons”, troubled by a past that he cannot escape. It’s a fate for all of us, but here it just isn’t pursued from a perspective interrogative or entertaining enough to recommend. Couple this with some serious narrative flaws (of believability, but I won’t reveal with regard to what) and State of Violence becomes barely a footnote on a body of work dramatised much better elsewhere.
*State of Violence releases nationwide tomorrow, Friday 28 October 2011, at the following cinemas.
Cinema Nouveau Cavendish – CT
Parrow – CT
Festival Mall – Kempton Park
Carlton – JHB
Musgrave – DBN
Gateway – DBN
Mall of the North – PTA
Key West – JHB West
Sterland – PTA
Cinema Nouveau Rosebank – JHB
Maponya Mall – Soweto
Sunnypark – PTA
Canal Walk – CT
The Bioscope – JHB
Gables – Swaziland