This South African shantytown-karma tale feels like a deleted chapter from the DVD for Crash—no wonder it won the foreign- language Oscar. It's passably better than the other four lame nominated flicks, mainly because of its vivid post-apartheid setting and certainly not because of its tabloidesque plot engine: a baby accidentally carjacked with a vehicle. And like Ludacris and Larenz Tate in Crash, we have rather schematic bickering hoodlums as the pivot between different classes; only this gang, led by Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), is as black as the movie's main victims—a buppie couple living behind a security fence far above the sprawling slum of Sophiatown. ("Tsotsi" translates as thug in Johannesburg patois; there are subtitles to read, but some of the dialogue's also in English.)
Athol Fugard's source novel, set in the '50s, has been emphatically kicked forward to the age of AIDS and globalization, and young director Gavin Hood (see interview) is definitely a product of the energetic new South Africa. He keeps the early action jittery and tense as shark-eyed Tsotsi and his homies silently jack a guy on the subway; a propulsive soundtrack full of kwaito music (by Zola, Vusi Mahlasela, and others) also reflects the collision between Sophiatown—full of immigrants from many other African nations—and the prosperous core of J-burg, ringed by the city's 10 million inhabitants.
Once Tsotsi has the baby, and after he shoots the mother in a panic to boost her BMW, the movie could go a couple ways. In his only novel (not published until 1980), the great playwright Fugard (Master Harold . . . and the Boys, Blood Knot) isn't the sort of writer you'd expect to stoop to sentimentality, and he doesn't. His hardened hero is somewhat redeemed and does regain his childhood name, but the novel is a fairly brutal testament to the (then) ongoing reality of township life and death. In this adaptation, Tsotsi also engages wet-nurse Miriam (Terry Pheto) at gunpoint to feed his adopted son, but the film trips on his own infant consciousness and falls into melodrama. Not one but two characters wind up in wheelchairs; Miriam makes mobiles out of colored glass shards; and Tsotsi, between flashbacks to his own childhood traumas, revisits the carjacked couple's home to see the nursery he never had. The novel ends correctly; the film does not.
Still, Hood uses dusty yellow wide-screen lensing and real Sophiatown locations to often impressive effect. There are also moments of subtlety to his cap-lock script, thanks mainly to the acting. Particularly fine is the relationship between Chweneyagae and Kenneth Nkosi, as his lumbering, simpleminded henchman, Aap. When Tsotsi, seeking to retire from the thug life, tries to send Aap away to another gang, the big guy looks stricken and hurt. Brothers in violence, Tsotsi's newfound impulse toward life lands like a deathblow to Aap. Maybe the stolen baby will get a second chance, but not so those unlucky enough to be born before apartheid ended.