Near the colonial town of Marseilles, a group of rebellious friends known as the Five Fingers repel the local oppressive police force, shooting the cops in the mayhem. Fearing retribution, the shooter Tau flees from the town and the ensuing fallout for 20 years. Upon his return, Tau finds that a brutal gang has taken the place of the cops and he is compelled to round up the Fingers to defend the land that they call home.
Part outlaw-and-rancher story, part Revisionist Western, Five Fingers For Marseilles is innovative in a handful of ways. Not only does it recalibrate the genre by focusing on the indigenous populace rather than its colonialist occupants (and switches languages from English to authentic Xosho to Sesotho), but the film embodies the New Frontier’s restless spirit in a South African town, Marseilles. The Eastern Cape town has a place of worship, a general store, a saloon, and a tight sprawl of modest homes. Despite the buddings of civilization, frontier justice still rules over all.
The loose political allegory is an intimate one that observes its characters with measured cadence. The quintet of fighters who dub themselves “The Five Fingers” are a gaggle of outliers, each a distinct archetype. There is Unathi (Aubrey Poolo), the pastor who tells stories. Luyanda, or “Cockroach” (Mduduzi Mabaso), is the broken one. Bongani (Kenneth Nkosi) is the wealthy child they lovingly call “Pockets”, and Tau “the Lion” (Vuyo Dabula), is fearless with a mean streak. The final member (and beating heart) of the group is Lerato (Zethu Dlomo). Far from one-dimensional, each of the Five Fingers is a tangible soul with discernible fears, though they all share the same dream of peace in their isolated town. Every one of them gets scenes to steal and a chance to shine, and shine they do. Vuyo Dabula’s quiet but powerful performance in particular astonishes in every pained grimace and every resigned sigh.
The crown jewel of Five Fingers is Shaun Harley Lee’s stunning cinematography. Wide panoramas vividly capture the vast South African frontier, both uplifting and unforgiving. Starkly human closeups employ subtle but effective lighting to underscore every emotion on each character’s face, a praiseworthy feat in a film that refuses to spoon-feed its audience with on-the-nose dialogue. Combined with the grand grittiness of Pierre Vienings’ magnificent costume design, it all culminates in a visually magnificent powerhouse tale of friendship and honor put to the test.
The pacing in Five Fingers is more akin to Unforgiven than The Wild Bunch; Sean Drummond’s screenplay is a slow, strong brew. The film has its predictable parts; the returning Hero reluctantly agrees to fight on behalf of innocents in the mold of Seven Samurai, among other moments. But director Michael Matthews avoids leaning too heavily on tropes by tugging the reins on the action and focusing on compelling character arcs instead. The third act does allow all of its budding elements to converge in a spectacular shootout worthy of comparison to Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid or 3:10 To Yuma. Five Fingers works within the structural confines of the conventional Western to add epic dimension to an already triumphant tale.
Five Fingers For Marseilles is a Western, sure enough, but its thematic exploration of friendship, loyalty, honor, and love are broad enough to transcend such a label while deftly utilizing the enduring genre techniques to amplify those themes. This is the best Western of the year, a must-see masterwork of story and craft.