Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
Once in a great while, a film comes along that is so pleasurable you sit in your seat goggle-eyed and widely grinning, remembering what it was that made you love movies in the first place. Stander is this sort of film.
The story takes place over the period from 1976 to 1984, and rarely has a movie set in the recent past gotten it so right. The clothing, the hairstyles (and obligatory mustaches), the buildings, the decor, everything feels on the nose, not phony or exaggerated, as ’70s styles so often are. Further, the palette in the early scenes is all browns and golds, and the film looks slightly grainy, making it seem almost as if the whole affair were a lost artifact of the ’70s rather than a recreation; it has the texture of that era’s films celebrating wounded antiheroes.
At the film’s center is Andre Stander, played with skillful reserve by Thomas Jane. As the film begins, Stander seems to have it all. He’s a successful cop in Apartheid-era South Africa, the son of a police general and himself the youngest captain in Johannesburg. He has a beautiful, loving wife, Bekkie (Deborah Kara Unger). But things begin to fall apart when he and his fellow officers are sent to Tembisa on riot patrol. A tense protest by hundreds of black South Africans becomes violent, and the police begin firing into the crowd. When an unarmed man charges at Stander, he shoots, and something in him snaps. Stander’s expression changes from resolve to horror to fury. He is no longer the man he was.
At loose ends, Stander becomes alternately violent and manic, distressing his wife, father, and fellow cops. He becomes obsessed with the man he’s killed and refuses to continue with riot patrol. Frustrated with the diversion of police resources to quell uprisings (“A white man could get away with anything today!” he growls into the empty precinct house), he prowls the city and, on a whim, walks into a bank and pulls his gun. He’s found a way to release his frustration while undermining the system that made him the man he’s become. He begins to pull heist after heist, silently daring his colleagues to recognize the turncoat in their midst. He’s sent out to investigate his own crimes, and when a teller recognizes him he turns it into a joke. He’s arrogantly certain that no one will suspect the celebrated police captain could be responsible for the robberies. He sets up a stakeout and hits three banks while his colleagues wearily stare at their watches.
When Stander pulled his first holdup, I wasn’t convinced it made sense for the character. Clearly he’d become unmoored from his sense of Afrikaner society and himself, but Jane keeps Stander’s emotions so veiled that the act seemed like an aberration. It’s after the robbery, though, that it starts to make sense. When you see Stander next, he’s regained some of the cockiness he had earlier and his fury has subsided. The robbery allowed him to release some of the rage and hurt that had built up and that his stoical, macho persona couldn’t release any other way.
Eventually his partner, played by South African comic actor Ashley Taylor, gets wise. Stander is convicted of several robberies and sentenced to 32 years in prison, where he befriends two other inmates, Lee McCall (Dexter Fletcher) and Allan Heyl (David Patrick O’Hara). Stander and McCall break out of prison, rob a bank, and then audaciously return to set Heyl free as well. The three become known as the Stander Gang, and together they pull off a series of robberies even more daring than those Stander had committed on his own. The handsome, charismatic bank robber becomes a folk hero, South Africa’s first television star, and the police — and by extension the entire government — are made to look inept and foolish. Eventually, though, Stander’s old police partner gets a lucky break, and the net begins to tighten.
When a society’s leaders and institutions become so corrupt that the common people can no longer believe in them, it’s easy to latch on to anyone who’s willing to buck the system and see them as a hero — it’s something a lot of Americans have experienced over the last year or so. Many South Africans seem to have admired Stander regardless of the fact that he was a little bit crazy and a more than a little bit dangerous, simply because he was one man standing up to oppose a system that was irredeemably imperial and patriarchal. It’s why Howard Dean appealed to so many voters, for a while. Though Stander became first and foremost a criminal, he did maintain a code of honor. He threatened people with guns but never used them, and he took money from big, faceless institutions that it was hard to feel sorry for, like an adolescent who rationalizes his shoplifting because, hey, the store can afford it. He was a bit of Robin Hood, a bit Bonnie and Clyde, and maybe a bit more the romantic leading man. His blond hair glinted in the sun and the tellers swooned as they put the money in the bag.
Jane’s performance is a revelation. He is the rare actor who has the looks and the physique of a leading man while retaining the ability to disappear into a character. As Stander, he projects none of the ambivalence of the new 21st-century heroes. He has the potent, old-style machismo reminiscent of a Steve McQueen, but with a more complex inner life. He’s aware he’s playing a mythic sort of character and he wisely chooses restraint, keeping his performance at a more human level while Jess Hall’s cinematography does the myth-making. As the film progresses, Jane is filmed more and more from below and in slow motion, giving him a larger-than-life quality.
Jane also taps into his inner Meryl Streep, managing a consistent South African accent (not an easy one to do; it sounds a little bit English, a little bit Austrian, and a little bit something else) and a number of others but also, in a very tense scene in which he returns to Tembisi to atone for his sins, delivering a brief monologue in Zulu.
Director Bronwen Hughes previously helmed Harriet the Spy and the Ben Affleck/Sandra Bullock romantic comedy Forces of Nature. To say this is a different direction for her is a gross understatement, yet she shows a remarkably sure hand, balancing action sequences with scenes exploring the characters and their relationships and keeping a brisk, steady pace that barely allows you to catch your breath before the next thrill.
Hughes effectively dramatizes the unconscionable injustice of Apartheid, opening with helicopter shots contrasting shantytowns and affluent suburbs (white people in South Africa must play a lot of tennis—every house seems to have its own court), and creating palpable tension in the standoff in Tembisi. When the protests begin, most of the faces we see are joyous, chanting passionately with the conviction that their civil disobedience will bring about change. When the police release their dogs on the protesters and begin firing into the crowd, the memory of all those faces smiling just a moment before makes it all the more grotesque.
For long stretches, though, the politics of that time and place remain mostly in the background, something for Stander to rebel against. Perhaps it’s the nature of the story; while the film makes a persuasive argument that he began his series of robberies at least partly out of dissent, it’s a very abstract kind of protest.
The script, by Bina Stagg, has been kicking around for at least a decade, possibly because the studios were concerned that there would be little international interest in a complex antihero mostly unknown outside South Africa. Not satisfied to simply film it as written, Hughes did a lot of her own research, speaking to Heyl, the surviving member of the Stander gang, and to police officers and prison guards who’d known Stander. She found a divergence of interpretations of both his character and the facts of the case. She’s gone with the most gallant interpretation of the character, and whatever its implications for historical accuracy, it’s clearly the right decision dramatically. Even during his crime spree, Stander was achieving legendary status, and it’s this aspect of the character she’s concerned with.
There are some missteps. Unger’s Bekkie Stander is well-used in early scenes to establish both Stander’s innocent happiness prior to the events in Tembisa and his breakdown afterward, but the character is mostly forgotten in the second half of the film. Another scene or two with Bekkie could have helped humanize the situation further and explain her actions after the end of Stander’s crime spree. Also, the prison sequence could have been longer, allowing us to understand better the growing friendship between Stander, Heyl, and McCall. But in both cases, Hughes made the decision to keep the pacing tight, and that’s part of what makes it such an exciting film to watch.
Stander is a real crowd-pleaser, with a lot of big, well-earned laughs and thrilling set pieces. Unfortunately, the distributors don’t seem to know what they’ve got; they’re hardly promoting the movie at all. So, please, go see this movie. If you like it — and you will — tell your friends. There’s far too little filmmaking out there like this — filmmaking that works on the popular level and has a brain.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.