The trailer for Retribution boasts that it is “SA’s most critically acclaimed thriller”. It’s a valid claim, writes Lance Harris, but it’s not exactly as if the film had to beat off competition from an army of local Hitchcocks and De Palmas to secure the accolade.
Yet the film’s apparently modest ambitions are something to celebrate rather than sneer at. This is the sort of movie that SA filmmakers should make more of rather than throwing tens of millions of rand at expensive and uncertain prospects like Jock and Spud. It makes sense for local filmmakers to master Reservoir Dogs before they move on to Toy Story 3.
Shot in just 14 days and financed by the National Film & Video Foundation and private equity, the film illustrates that local filmmakers can make a high-quality product with a minimal budget. No washed-up international stars, no 3D visuals, no crowd scenes — just a decent script, a simple setting and a handful of proven SA actors.
Retribution is a promising debut feature for Mukunda Dewill, who cut his teeth filming commercials for a number of large advertising agencies. Dewill is already starting to make waves on the international front — US action-movie star Paul Walker is executive producing and starring in the director’s next film, Vehicle 19.
Retribution is a “contained thriller” — a suspense film that pits a few characters against each in a fight for survival in an isolated or enclosed setting. This a genre favoured by many low-budget filmmakers because it doesn’t need much in the way of sets, special effects or star power to pull off.
At its best, as in Misery or Rear Window or Assault on Precinct 13, it’s the thriller torn down to its most basic components. Retribution, in the tradition of the genre, is sparse and elemental. A retired judge has banished himself to some isolated part of the country to finish writing his memoirs by his publisher’s deadline.
His peaceful routine of writing, chopping wood and feeding the dog is shattered when a fastidious but creepy hiker arrives at his doorstep claiming to be lost. By now, you’ll surely have a good idea of exactly where the story is headed, though to it does deliver a few jolts of tension along the way.
Retribution is firmly rooted in its SA setting and characters, but it is refreshingly matter-of-fact about them. The real star of the film, perhaps, is the parched landscape of Botrivier in the Western Cape, bleached bone-dry through the washed-out colours that dominate Retribution’s colour palette. It’s a distinctly SA landscape, beautifully photographed.
The fact that the judge is black and his antagonist is white isn’t central to the story. The judge is played by TV and movie veteran Joe Mafela, who brings a quiet dignity and a sense of deeply concealed secrets to his character. Playing opposite him as the hiker is Jeremy Crutchley, a big name in SA theatre and film.
Crutchley occasionally goes a little over the top — think De Niro in Cape Fear — but makes for a chilling villain in the more grounded moments of his performance. The hamminess that creeps in is as much the fault of a script that has him repeatedly insisting on the order of things to illustrate the inner turmoil masked by his pernickety behaviour.
Retribution trailer (via YouTube):
Well-made as it is, Retribution is by no means as slick as an equivalent movie with (for example) Liam Neeson and Morgan Freeman would be. But it’s also more economical with its twists, turns and set pieces, which makes a welcome change from the padding Hollywood loves to stuff into its movies these days.
It’s an entertaining 83 minutes, though one is left wanting as the end credits roll. Perhaps it’s a bit of subtext that is missing, perhaps it’s a touch of humour or a dash of originality. No matter. Retribution has not tried to position itself as a make-or-break proposition for the film industry. All in all, Retribution is just okay, but filmgoers should be alright with that. — Lance Harris, TechCentral