Judge Adam Arseneau is a dusthead. Wait, hold on. That might not mean what he thinks it means.
Nothing is more dangerous than the truth.
…with the possible exception of watching this movie.
Just kidding. I couldn't resist an opening line like that. I kind of wish Red Dust had turned out to be a terrible film. As it turns out, it's quite good.
Facts of the Case
After fifty years of social and racial oppression, South Africa ended apartheid, released Nelson Mandela from prison and agreed to democratic reform, but found difficulty reconciling decades of violence and strife between the blacks and whites. As the country stared down the barrel of a civil war, a solution was devised.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the inverse of a court of law. By confessing your crimes on the record, you were granted amnesty from prosecution. Traveling the countryside by convoy, the Commission was offered as compromise, giving blacks the satisfaction of public admission of guilt, but protecting the whites from punishment. The only catch is, to acquire amnesty for one particular crime, the confessors must come clean about all crimes committed…no matter how old or forgotten they may be.
So when a police officer confesses to the 1980s beating torture of political activist Alex Mpondo (Chiwetel Ejifor, Serenity, Dirty Pretty Things) in order to seek general amnesty, Alex is incensed. Planning on confronting the ruling, he hires human-rights lawyer Sarah Barcant (Hillary Swank, Million Dollar Baby, Boys Don't Cry), recently returned to Cape Town from New York, to oppose the proceedings. Alex refuses to let such a sadistic man walk free and clear from his crimes, and wants questions answered about his friend, Steve Sizela, a political activist arrested at the same time as Alex and never heard from again.
As Sarah and Alex dig deeper into the events of the past, old ghosts are unearthed that threaten to disrupt the lives of all. The sins of the past run deep and secrets on both sides have terrible consequences…
Gripping yet slow-paced, tenuously neutral on the subject of politics, Red Dust is a mature, sophisticated drama that pays dividends to those prepared to sit through the pacing. The story itself is a fairly predictable courtroom drama, nothing controversial or original, the story contained in the characters struggling to overcome their own hardships, mistakes, and grief.
The history and politics of South Africa are frustratingly complex, and no two-hour drama is fully prepared to tackle them all. Set against such a chaotic backdrop of strife and anger, Red Dust balances itself nicely, holding the hands of the uninformed through some of the stickier details, never feeling pandering or political. Referencing events during the crackdown on the Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the African National Congress, some basic political knowledge of apartheid will do you no harm, but the film is certainly watchable without knowing anything about South African politics.
Central to the film is the concept of forgiveness, turning the other cheek in the face of brutality. Having spent years soaked in blood, South Africa tries to mend the wounds with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which comes across like a cross between a media op and a kangaroo court. At times brilliant, at others a strange perversion of the legal system that borders on a lynch mob, the Commission seeks forgiveness, not retaliation. A most compelling concept, and one that makes for an excellent backdrop to a drama. Revenge films, we have plenty of, but forgiveness films are fewer in numbers.
Swank (aside from being extremely easy on the eyes) is one of the finest actresses of her generation when she has the material and directing to support her. Unfortunately, Red Dust illustrates how a mediocre film can mute even the strongest of dramatic actors. She doesn't do a bad job with the role, but her character seems cold and distant, at odds with her personality, and her faux-Cape Town accent waffles in and out. Ejiofor, on the other hand, turns out a strong performance, as he does with every movie he appears in. The dude has crazy talent, and he turns out a marvelous performance as Alex.
Having been tortured and brutalized by his oppressors in the past, his torture flashbacks shown in small, overexposed bursts, Alex at one point has the chance to strike back at the white man who caused him so much pain…yet he turns the other cheek. Then, later on, he strikes and beats a black colleague from the MK without a second thought, simply for doubting his loyalty. I found that sequence odd; the disturbing shift from oppressor to oppressed. To be so willing to forgive one's enemies, but not one's friends is exactly the opposite of the typical North American mindset, especially when it comes to slights against us. An eye for an eye comes easily; open-ended forgiveness does not.
It perplexes me, but I think I like this about Red Dust. The film acknowledges the terrible pain and hardship put through South Africa, stares straight at the cruel past and walks forward into a new beginning without succumbing to action film clichés or silliness. The ethos put forth opts not to dwell on the black stains of apartheid, but argues instead for a philosophy of forgiveness and tolerance. Nothing can be done to heal the wounds of the past, but communities can be rebuilt and families united once again for strength. This makes Red Dust a spiritually fulfilling, multi-faceted, and complex film, quite unlike the way films from North America would stereotypically handle the subject matter.
The DVD has a fantastic transfer, highlighting the red hazy cinematography and stunning landscapes of South Africa. Deep rich black levels, saturated browns and reds and excellent clarity make for a top-grade transfer to DVD, with no noticeable defects. The audio, a Dolby Digital 5.1 track is fairly minimalist and center-channel focused, but it makes excellent use of side and rear channels for environmental noises. Dialogue is clear and crisp, primarily in English, though characters often speak in Afrikaans and Zulu depending on the context, making the partial English subtitle track a must.
With extra material so plentiful these days on DVD, I don't have much tolerance for bare-bones DVDs that can't even bother digging up a trailer or two of content. That's just lazy.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I touched on this before, but the downside to the atmosphere of tolerance in Red Dust is a film extremely ambiguous in message, so much so that people who require solid resolutions may feel irritated, for lack of a better word. This is exactly the kind of film that could never be created in North America (not because we're all jerks or anything) because we have come to expect our dramas—especially courtroom-themed dramas—to come to a well-defined black-and-white resolution.
We like to see the bad guys punished, and can even tolerate the good guys losing, so long as there is finality to the verdict that we can set our watch to. "Let's all just forgive and forget" is not a sentence passed down often on Law & Order. I liked this aspect of Red Dust, but a lot of people will not.
Low-key pacing and a fairly predictable storyline keep Red Dust from being a grade-A film, but not by much. Truth be told, this is as good as a B-cinema film gets. If you like your dramas reality-based and politically relevant, Red Dust is beautifully directed, somber, well-acted, and as poignant a DVD rental as you could hope for. There is depth to this film worth appreciating.
Red Dust gets off free, but apartheid is hereby declared stupid.
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