The brace of pistols, one at each hip. The spurs, the hat, and the horse. The villain and the village in need. The western was ruled by the lone figure of the gunslinger, but as the genre dried up, his relevance retreated, like a long shadow at high noon. But with the right kind of eyes, you can still make him out. Swap the horse for a Chevrolet Impala and you’ve got the nameless hero of Drive. Meanwhile, John Wick is doing the opposite, as in his upcoming third outing he’s foregone his Ford Mustang and saddled a stallion instead.
For debut feature director Michael Matthews, however, these faint traces won’t do. Instead, he has made Five Fingers for Marseilles, a neo-western set in post-Apartheid South Africa that conjures a cattle call of iconography and herds it all into an enclosure of genre convention. The film opens on a gang of children who live in Marseilles, a railroad town in the Eastern Cape. They dub themselves the Five Fingers, forming a clenched fist to fight against the police, who extort and intimidate the citizens of the town.
Matthews has an eye for the accoutrements of playing pretend, from the creak and whip of wooden slingshots to the gang’s makeshift badges, pinned to lapels like a sheriff’s star, and the rusted BMX bikes they ride like rangers atop steeds. Led by the unyielding Tau, the group intervenes one day as a pair of officers throw their weight around town. There are close-ups of brass buttons stitched to uniform sleeves, leather boots grinding gravel underfoot, and revolvers hung in holsters, waiting. The games of children and adults are no different, Matthews seems to suggest; it’s merely the toys that change.
A dumbstruck act of ugly, gurgling violence sends Tau (played as an adult by Vuyo Dabula) spiraling into exile and an outlaw life of crime. We see him spat out after serving 20 years in prison for a robbery gone wrong. He decides to go straight, and to go home. And so does Matthews, who has wrought a handsome film but bound it with dogmatic devotion. What happens in Five Fingers for Marseilles isn’t dictated by the tried and true themes of the classic westerns—of violence begetting violence, or of the ideological clashes that spring from a riven land—but by the films themselves.
We have the drifter, the members of his old gang gone wayward, corrupt government officials, and, of course, the presence of evil. That takes the form of Sepoko (Hamilton Dhlamini), who’s also known as Ghost. He haunts Marseilles, subjecting it to spiritual predation. His minions are vandals who spark bar fights and threaten townspeople. Dhlamini is a paralyzing presence; his orotund voice bears a lyrical lilt, and one of his eyes is milky white, as if stuck seeing the past. One shot sees him backlit with bruised clouds that crack with lightning. He doesn’t seem human. But if we never understand him it’s because there’s nothing to understand; his character is a capital-V villain. His is a bottomless bad, summoned by the script and left unexplained.
Which, thankfully, isn’t the case with Tau. Dabula is a curious presence, at once soft-hearted and stolid, with a streak of darkness. Tau’s childhood friend and implied romantic interest, Lerato (Zethu Dlomo), is stoic and as steady with determination as the narrative—which traps them both. Jonah (Jerry Mofokeng), the gray-haired sage, tells Tau at one point, “It’s the hardest thing to stop a speeding train. Once it’s on its course, it’ll keep going until it crashes.” That’s true enough, and for those weaned on the western, the film’s events are as foretold as a train schedule, right down to the climactic crash.