Tsotsi opens on dice. Kids are playing craps, and if the shots are too close to read precisely faces or setting, you can make out hands and arms, liquor bottles and smoke. “What are we doing tonight?” one wonders out loud. All look to Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae). He has a plan.
It’s not that he has so many options. Tsotsi and his crew—Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), and Boston (Mothusi Magano)—live in Soweto, where they deal drugs, steal, and scavenge to get by. At least they have each other, and even places to sleep that aren’t drainage pipes. For their evening’s work, they head to the trains, where they’ll find someone to rob. En route, they pass public service posters that warn against AIDS (“HIV affects us all”), a detail that marks the changed timeframe for Tsotsi. Where Athol Fugard’s novel was set during the 1950s (published in 1980), Gavin Hood’s film takes place in an amorphous now. This shift has to do with budget (it’s expensive to design period sets and costumes), but it also underlines the ways that risks shift but also persist. Life for post-apartheid kids without homes and families is still terrifying.
It’s what they know, and so they accept. Tsotsi and his boys find their mark—a man who keeps his valuables in an easily accessible pocket—and gather round him on a crowded train. Within seconds, their job is done, though Butcher gets reckless, stabbing the man with an ice pick, right up under his ribs, so he dies quietly, unnoticed by the other train riders.
The combined brutality and carelessness of the act is stunning, but the kids count their bills and head off to a local pub where they proceed to get smashed and argue: Boston’s unhappy about the senseless murder, pressing Tsotsi to consider whether he’s even capable of “decency” anymore. The self-vaunted, exhausted hustler Tsotsi erupts, smashing Boston’s face repeatedly even as his friends must drag him off the prone, unconscious body. Looking down on his friend, now a victim of his ruthlessness, Tsotsi runs into the night, seeking escape, or maybe just another crime to commit. At this point, it’s all the same.
And so he finds his ostensible fate, in a BMW he carjacks while the driver (Nambitha Mpumlwana) waits for her driveway gate to open. She fights him hard for her vehicle, too hard, it seems, until he gets down the road and discovers her infant in the back seat. And now, by chance, Tsotsi has some strange new options.
His choice to keep the baby and leave the car changes everything and nothing. Loading the baby into a shopping bag he finds in the car, he traverses the wide emptiness between the highway and the shantytown, the camera hovering above the street to observe his movement. At home, a shack with a sheet metal door he keeps chained shut with a padlock, Tsotsi feeds the child condensed milk from a can, diapers it with newspaper, leaves it in the shopping bag under his bed while he goes out cruising for new trouble. But while his encounter with a homeless crippled man (Jerry Mofokeng) in a homemade cart and flashbacks to Tsotsi’s tragic childhood provide unnecessarily broad symbolism (not only does his mother [Sindi Shambule] die of AIDS, but his father [Israel Makoe] kicks dogs) they also lay a groundwork for his evolving intimacy with the child he can only see at first as an object, a sort of mini-me he’s stolen because he wants it.
This relationship is rendered in images that emphasize 19-year-old Tsotsi’s limited, slowly expanding vision. At the market, he spots Miriam (Terry Pheto), her own baby tied to her back as she waits to buy food. Loading “his” increasingly miserable but astoundingly patient baby into the shopping bag, he arrives on Miriam’s doorstep and makes her breastfeed the child at gunpoint, her own baby beside her on the bed, touching at the visitor, welcoming and curious, blissfully ignorant. Tsotsi watches, gun in his lap, transfixed.
While Tsotsi certainly presses the sorts of buttons that attract Academy attention, and indeed, it’s nominated for this year’s best foreign language film. But its earnestness and occasional awkwardness are assuaged by Lance Gewer’s sharply affecting cinematography and Chweneyagae’s remarkable (first-time) performance. As the young hoodlums are faced daily with images of what they’ll never have, the middle-class gated homes so close to their own squalor, they rage without recourse. Without education or adults who might look for them, they can only survive according to the terms they see.
Tsotsi’s grappling with the baby’s needs makes him seem sympathetic, especially as Butcher provides an increasingly cruel and violent opposite. But what the film overstates in narrative, it makes poignant in imagery. When Tsotsi thinks briefly he might give the baby away to homeless kids closer to its age, he visits the drainage pipes where he used to live, pointing out the one where he slept. Scrawny and tough, they look at Tsotsi as if he’s crazy, asking them to take a baby in a bag: what do they want with this little bit of precious life? They need to look out for their own.
It’s a small moment that suggests how lives become irrelevant, out of control, lost. The middle-class parents suffer and seethe, Tsotsi learns his own sort of lesson, and viewers can feel better for all of it. But it’s worth remembering the kids in the pipes, who show up only for this instant and then vanish again, seeming slivers of narrative background, tossed like dice into a distressing nowhere. They are, in fact, the film’s focus, however unseen.