Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
A Sticks-and-Slingshots Type of Uprising
After missing Five Fingers for Marseilles when it screened during Fantastic Fest in 2017, it was still highly anticipated since it has such a remarkable reputation. Directed by Michael Matthews and written by Sean Drummond (Five Fingers is the feature film debut for both), Five Fingers for Marseilles is probably the world’s first South African western film. Language in the film is said to be authentic jumping between English, Xhosa, and Sesotho. Actor Vuyo Dabula, who portrays the adult version of Tau in the film, did nearly all of his own stunts and all of the children in the film are actually local villagers who were studying to be in local theatre.
Police are corrupt in the small town of Marseilles expecting money from villagers which they do not have. Six kids band together and refer to themselves as the Five Fingers; there’s the leader Zulu, the heart and soul of the group named Lerato, the storyteller named Unathi who is constantly referred to as Pastor, the broken one named Luyanda whose nickname is Cockroach, Bongani is the wealthy one known as Pockets, and Tau is the reckless one of the group; he’s ruthless, strong, and fast but is often seen as the meanest one of the six. Together they are the five fighters of freedom.
After an incident results in the police taking Lerato away in their vehicle, Tau intervenes only to make the situation worse. He turns his back on Marseilles, his friends, and his duty as he flees without looking back. 15 years later, an adult Tau finally returns to Marseilles only to see that things have gotten worse. His friends are divided, one of them is dead, and a heartless and intimidating man rules the streets. Sepoko, known as The Ghost, and his Night Runners kill, pillage, and commit crimes as they see fit. Marseilles is even more warped and deformed than when Tau left it and it’s on the verge of total eradication unless someone intervenes.
If you’ve ever seen a film that’s taken place in South Africa, it probably hasn’t looked like this. Films like District 9 and Dredd have portrayed just how grimy and poverty-stricken run-down neighborhoods can be in that area. Marseilles is lacking financially and the people make do with what little they have, but their surroundings are gorgeous. Marseilles seems to be in the middle of the desert where their dusty isolation and lack of greenery only enhances prismatic sunrises that breathe life into snow blanketed mountain tops. In reality, the filming locations were freezing during production with Zethu Dlomo (the adult version of Lerato) nearly suffering from hypothermia in the process.
The characters are what make the film since you tend to find yourself wanting to know more about everyone. Unathi is the least interesting since he basically just becomes the local pastor, but he hangs on to everything from 15 years ago in order to tell an accurate story of the five fighters of freedom. Bongani becomes the mayor of Marseilles, but lets his money become his defining characteristic and hides behind it as a defense mechanism. Luyanda is now the chief of police and is still trying to rid himself of the Cockroach nickname. Lerato runs The Grey Lady, the town’s most popular tavern, with her father. She’s had a son, Sizwe, with Zulu. Tau is the most conflicted as his decision of leaving in the past has always eaten at his core. He’s been to prison and is reluctant to embrace his pride as The Lion of Marseilles. Finally there’s Sepoko whose face is two different shades and his right eye is almost completely white. He is emotionless and claims to have ripped himself from his mother’s charred flesh after she was struck by lightning while giving birth to him. His desire is to bring utter chaos to Marseilles and typically succeeds with every effort.
Five Fingers for Marseilles has this The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford quality to it where it values atmosphere and character development over action. Five Fingers doesn’t shy away from violence and even utilizes graphic and bloody sequences when necessary, but there’s more of an emphasis on the story. Five Fingers for Marseilles is like that slow-paced stroll that two gunslingers partake in with spurs jingling with each step and their palms hovering above their hip itching to reach their revolver first during an old fashioned western showdown at sundown. Director Michael Matthews and screenwriter Sean Drummond succeed in coating the audience with beautiful scenery and injecting intrigue into a ragtag rogue’s gallery loaded with characters who have selfishly committed terrible acts and yet you find yourself fascinated by each and every one of them. The slow pace benefits this type of story resulting in a stronger film that refuses to waver from its concept. Five Fingers for Marseilles holds up to other semi-recent westerns like The Proposition and Lawless, but its South African setting causes the film to distinctively stand out among similar films.
© 2018 Chris Sawin