How much are we who we were and how much are we who we’ve become? That’s the question that “State of Violence,” the latest film from director Khalo Matabane (Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon), addresses.
Bobedi (Hotel Rwanda’s Fana Mokoena) is a high-flying businessman, at the top of the new South Africa. He and his wife, Joy (Lindi Matshikiza), are living the good life. It’s a world totally removed from the violent apartheid-era township in which Bobedi was raised. The crimes he witnessed and the crimes he committed are old memories, decades in the past. When Bobedi and Joy are attacked by an intruder in their home, one who hints at knowing Bobedi’s past, it becomes clear that what’s done is rarely fully done. Joy is murdered by the masked-gunman, leading Bobedi to commence a search for the killer. His literal search for the killer runs parallel to his figurative search for himself.
Unfortunately, “State of Violence” doesn’t deliver on the promise of its premise. If ever there was a country where questions of past actions and present identity resonate, it must surely be South Africa. The transformation of Nelson Mandela from terrorist to respected statesman shows that simple answers don’t exist but that there is some way forward. The film does not delve into these questions with the depth or skill required to make the picture a meaningful commentary. We must content ourselves with one man’s story of revenge, but there, again, the picture fails. As a detective film or thriller, the plot is too pedestrian and straight-forward to give much satisfaction. It’s too broad to be a satisfying as a mystery and too shallow to be a satisfying social examination.
To be fair to Matabane, his star may have let him down as well. Mokoena’s face rarely gives much insight into what is supposed to be happening in Bobedi’s head. While Bobedi does undergo a journey, we only see it happening in the character’s actions, we don’t see it happening on his face or in his mind, so it is not convincing. Presley Cheweneyagae (star of 2005’s Best Foreign Language Oscar winner Tsotsi), as Bobendi’s brother, Boy-Boy, delivers more emotion, breathing some life into his flatly-drawn character.
The film is competently shot, though Matabane’s shaky camera-work leads more to distraction than a sense of urgency. One great chase scene, where such shooting would have really stood out, instead gets lost because of all the jitter in the scenes that could have been more stably shot. The director uses the township where Bobedi grew up, as a character in the film and does it well. What could have been voyeuristic comes across as real and not exploitative.
The film might have benefited from an extra twenty minutes to develop either theme in greater depth. Whether it is as social commentary or a mystery thriller doesn’t matter. Either would have been a better choice than this hybrid that delivers as neither. Much like its protagonist, “State of Violence” starts down an interesting path, but gets lost when it comes to a fork in the road.