A man returns to his childhood home only to find it overrun by a criminal gang, in Michael Matthews’ bleak South African neo-western Five Fingers for Marseilles (2017).
As a child, Tau’s fiercely protective attitude to his best friends leads to the deaths of several police officers. As an adult, Tau (Vuyo Dabula) returns home to the railway town of Marseilles to find one friend dead, another two lost to corruption, and the town itself at the mercy of an armed criminal gang.
The western is one of the more interesting genres to watch spread across international cinema. It is effectively one of the USA’s greatest contribution to the screen arts, taking as its inspiration a mythologised ideal of 19th century colonial expansion across North America. It has proven an enormously versatile genre as well, allowing for takes back and forth on America’s first peoples, the Civil War, rural crime, as well as blends with other screen genres: comedy westerns exist, as do horror westerns, science fiction westerns, and so on.
When co-opted by other countries and cultures, however, even more interesting things can happen. Italy is famous for its ‘spaghetti’ westerns. Japanese features including Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) and Unforgiven (2013) replay western tropes through a culturally specific lens – as do Chinese works like Swordsmen in Double Flag Town (1991) and Wind Blast (2010). In pre-unified East Germany there was a popular line of ‘Indian pictures’; socialist parables with native Americans re-framed as a proletariat resistance.
South Africa is an obvious country to co-opt the western, due to a combination of European colonialism, race relations, and landscape. With Five Fingers for Marseilles, director Michael Matthews exploits his physical and cultural setting to create a western that is both fresh and original and remarkably traditional. It grabs one’s attention through a fresh location and cultural context, but it succeeds because Matthew’s direction, Sean Drummond’s screenplay, and Shaun Harley Lee’s photography demonstrate a controlled and comprehensive understanding of how westerns work.
Vuyo Dabula gives a strong, steely performance as Tau. He is a classic protagonist for the genre: quiet, reluctant, and capable of terrible violence. Dabula brings an enormous screen presence to the role. The supporting cast is universally strong, and fit comfortably into archetypes. Zethu Dlomo is excellent as Lerato, the film’s female lead, and her performance benefits from a screenplay that ensures her archetype never descends into stereotype. Hamilton Dhlamini, Kenneth Nkosi, and Mduduzi Mabaso are all superb.
When the action hits, it tends to be short, blunt, and bloody. Westerns tend to lean in one direction or another when it comes to violence, and Five Fingers for Marseilles reflects a reality where it only takes a single bullet to kill a human being, and where a gunfight between multiple parties is a nightmarish, chaotic affair. The film is told with a blunt, bleak tone to match: harshly beautiful visuals, solemn performances, and a miserable setting all work together.
This is not simply a distinctive western; it is a masterful one.
For Australian readers, Five Fingers for Marseilles is currently streaming on Stan.