A widescreen wallow in socially enforced slum nihilism brought to you by Miramax, Tsotsi could be pegged as City of God relocated to the Soweto shanties, but it eschews the ironic swagger and strobe-speed action of Fernando Meirelles’s lurid jigsaw for a more conventional arc: the tough guy humanized by a cute kid. Known by a nickname meaning thug in the local vernacular, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is the de facto leader of a small gang whose casually ritualized viciousness is displayed early on when they stab a man in a crowded subway car. Tsotsi’s apparently hazy background piques the interest of his colleagues (none of whom look far out of their teens); when drunken Boston (Mothusi Magano) asks one question too many, Tsotsi beats him nearly to death, then flees from the scene through movie rain and right into a carjacking opportunity so ripe for the plucking it must have been scripted. Only after Tsotsi has shot the driver and roared away in her BMW does the baby in the backseat make himself known . . .
Thereafter, not since Kevin Smith’s Jersey Girl have audiences been offered such a spectacle of watch-through-your-fingers ineptitude regarding the care and feeding of an infant. The wee bairn is swaddled in poopy newspapers and covered in condensed milk and ants (don’t ask) before Tsotsi thinks to hold a nursing neighbor, Miriam (Terry Pheto), at gunpoint so she’ll feed his acquisition. The film enlists this young woman—who was quite possibly widowed in a Tsotsi-led campaign—for a Madonna-and-child aura of earthy beatitude; confronted with Miriam’s mother-earth halations and the baby’s sheer irresistible babyness, Tsotsi is soon in thrall to the stirrings of a stunted conscience and insurgent memories of his own doomed mother, bad dad, and a runaway childhood spent sleeping in a drainage pipe.
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Oscars (its native tongue is the Tsotsi-Taal patois), Tsotsi is whittled down from a novel by Athol Fugard set in the 1950s; that the story can be so easily transposed to the post-apartheid present day is one of the movie’s saddest inferences. Writer-director Gavin Hood isn’t inoculated against cliché; the flashbacks are mawkish, and when Tsotsi sneaks up on a disabled beggar in an abandoned lot, the soundtrack signals the threat with a Sounds “R” Us rattlesnake effect. But Lance Gewer’s sunset-burnished photography is a nice changeup from the grainy, handheld stampeding usually associated with on-screen street grit, and Chweneyagae, with his smooth, androgynous features, earns his many close-ups. From certain angles, the actor can look ageless and sexless, and the physical ambiguity perfectly suits the role: First appearing as a terrifying tabula rasa, Tsotsi takes on jagged facets of flailing immaturity and stillborn innocence.