With new movies coming available nearly every day, it’s nigh impossible to see everything. Where technology saves audiences the world over is in the unprecedented access that streaming offers through on-demand or digital services to films the audience might otherwise miss. Folks, this is one of those times as Five Fingers for Marseilles, coming to VOD October 23rd after a brief stint in U.S. theaters between August and September of 2018, deserves an audience. Creative partners Michael Matthews (director) and Sean Drummond (writer) crafted a film which simultaneously harkens back to the days when classic westerns filled every screen from theaters to tvs, while being grounded in modernity. It’s an achievement in cinema that will startle audiences even more because this is Matthews’s and Drummond’s first feature film – an emotionally relentless film which feels like it’s been handled by masters of the craft.
In a shanty town in South Africa, six young friends take it upon themselves to protect their neighbors from corrupt cops who patrol the area. When one of the friends is taken hostage, the others spring into action with deadly consequences. Recognizing the danger that’s coming to them, Tau (Toka Mtabane) leaves town immediately, hoping that his absence will mean less punishment for his friends. Returning fifteen years later, Tau (Vuyo Dabula) realizes that the wake of his actions is still being felt by the community and by the people he loves. This time, however, it’s not just the cops Tau must contend with, but crime boss Sepoko (Hamilton Dhlamini) who seeks to expand his control no matter whom he must hurt to do it.
A true thing of beauty, Drummond’s script grabs you from the onset and never lets go. It doesn’t matter if it’s a quiet moment or an action-packed sequence, somehow everything crackles with energy. After a brief history lesson on the town of Marseilles and the adjacent shanty called Railway which were built for the locals who worked on the railway, Five Fingers transitions to the six children as four of them pretend to be in a standoff, slingshots at the ready. Unbeknownst to the audience, this scene subtly tells the audience everything about each character, and still rings true when we revisit their older selves later in the film. The audience learns which ones are relentless or fearful, which ones are slow, and which are fast. Most importantly, we learn that staying out of the fight, referring to the two who refrain from the standoff, bears its own consequences. Even after the prolonged introduction is completed, Five Fingers never slows down or wastes a moment as Tau, a man wishing to avoid fights, finds himself getting into one at every turn, even when all he wants is a quiet place to lay his head. As though conveying that same sense of intensity broiling underneath Tau, the weather surrounding Railway grows ever constipated until the pen-ultimate showdown occurs and all the tension from the sky to dirt unloads as the battle for the very soul of Marseille commences.
If Five Fingers sounds mythical to you, the execution makes it real. Matthews’s direction is patiently purposeful, allowing the audience to soak in the moments, even during heavy gun-fire. It’s hard enough to convey depth during casual conversation, but to find ways with staging to communicate intent or relationships even in gun fights is fantastic. Take the scene wherein Tau and his friends separate: as we witness Tau ride his bike toward a train leaving town, his friends are shown, via editing, to be hunkering down in the group’s hideout in the mountains overlooking the town. Seeing Tau curled up alone in the car of a train intercut with his friends together instills the significance of the story: a family separated and the unknown repercussions that follow. Later, upon his return, Sepoko wants to see Tau fight as the legend of “The Lion of Marseilles” is widely known throughout the area. Tau remains reserved in the same way as gun fighters of old, weary from the losses of time. He stands still in the face of a new adversary, seemingly vulnerable as he stands alone, circled by Sepoko’s man. Once triggered, however, Tau attacks and the camera shifts to look up at his face and captures his fists furiously pounding, mouth agape in a roar. The veracity in both attack and vocal reaction stuns not only his opponent and the audience, but himself – the shock of it seen plainly once the fight is won. Combined with Matthews’s direction, Shaun Lee’s cinematography makes the small modern town feel like the old west, where what lies in the shadows could mean the difference between life and death. On top of these, the score from James Matthes is absolutely beautiful, producing one of the best scores of the year. If the script, direction, and cinematography don’t suck you in, the music ebbing and flowing with the struggles of the characters will certainly do the trick.
Once more, Matthews’s patience wins the day by ensuring that the audience gets to spend quality time with the younger versions of the leads. The relationships not only feel real, but the emotionality that carries the story possesses the necessary weight for the gut-punch ending. By spending time with the younger versions, the audience begins to see the other characters as the older Tau does: reflections of themselves as children. Dabula beautifully captures a man in crisis, tired of fighting, exhausted from running, and desperately wanting to go home. The reluctance Dabula portrays within Tau pours out of him, making each choice away from or toward fighting all the more poignant. Couple that with strong supporting roles from Zethu Dlomo as Lerato, Tau’s childhood love; Aubrey Poolo as Unathi; the group’s faith-leader turned town Preacher; Kenneth Nkosi as Bongani, the rich kid turned mayor; and Mduduzi Mabaso as Luyanda, the group’s weakest member who grows to become Chief of Police, and you have a world populated by complex individuals whose relationships are truly heartbreaking. Thankfully Dhlamini’s turn as the villainous Sepoko, a man who believes himself as much a legend as the one townspeople created around Tau, never turns toward the ridiculous no matter how grand his claims or daring his declarations. In fact, Dhlamini’s performance is the perfect reflection to Dabula’s – where one is more restrained, the other more fierce. Their duality makes the final confrontation incredibly satisfying.
In an age where quantity tends to bury quality, digital options become the saving grace for films which demand attention. If the idea of watching a western based in South Africa doesn’t grab you, you’re likely not the first to think so. However, unequivocally, Five Fingers for Marseilles is the proverbial diamond in the rough, giving audiences an experience that’s both intellectually stimulating and emotionally rewarding. So the next time you find yourself trying to figure out what to watch, take a trip to Marseilles. You won’t regret it.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.