Wednesday, April 4, 2018

The Stick (1988)

So, today, in a fit of ridiculous candor, I've decided to tell you all about a dream I had recently.  I never remember my dreams, so this is, indeed, as rare as hen's teeth.  Anyway, it went a little something like this.  I just moved somewhere new with my family.  It was somewhere sort of desert-y, maybe Arizona or somewhere in California (why I would move there is beyond me; nothing against the denizens of California, but it just ain't for me).  The apartment building we moved into was somewhat rundown, in a seedy area, but the apartment itself was like a one story, austere, white adobe kind of house on the inside, with windows soldered together like stained glass that leak like sieves in the rain.  Some young woman was there, a friend of a family member, and she was very flirty.  Nothing, naturally, came of this (it so rarely does in my dreams, boo hoo). 
Next thing I know, I'm coming home from being out somewhere, and I passed by an apartment with an old school stereo setup playing some decent music (garage style stuff I’ve never heard before) outside it.  The door was open, so I wandered in to tell the owner I liked the music.  Inside the apartment was like some ancient, independent publishing outfit (and by that, I mean it was like a closet with files, and folders, and papers stacked everywhere).  As I talked to this guy (did I mention I almost never dream about people I know?), the apartment became a small bar (not much larger than the original closet apartment).  It had a nice atmosphere, and the people filtering through were interesting.   I guess you could call them hipsters, though they felt earnest to me.  So, the actual owner of the bar/apartment (not the same guy I initially met) comes around, and he's very Eye-Talian and very wacky.  He brandishes a knife at me, but it's more absent-minded, not menacing.  He says some crap about finding myself or somesuch and throws a bunch of disparate toys on the bar for me to "assemble" like some 3-D Psych test.  I do something or other with the toys, and the owner gets elated.  He offered me a job.  As the day turns to night, some Mario-Adorf-ian fella comes in saying everyone at home is waiting for me.  And then I woke up.  Make of that what you will, but it's a bit like the semi-dreamy atmosphere of Darrell Roodt's The Stick, a film as ethereal as it is politically barbed (by the way, not that I’m saying my dream was political in any way).
The film takes the perspective of Cooper (Greg Latter), a soldier in apartheid-torn South Africa.  He's the sole survivor of a surprise attack by native rebels painted (or are they?) white like ghosts.  He's sent back out with another stick (read: squad) on a search and destroy mission.  But Cooper and his new team are in for some unpleasant surprises from within and without.
The Stick is as much a Vietnam film as it is an anti-apartheid film as it is a fantasy film.  The first two of these go hand-in-hand.  Naturally, Vietnam was not a race war, per se, but some of the soldiers in it did allow their bigotry to get the better of them.  It was a hopeless conflict against an enemy that didn’t “play by the rules.”  Now, I completely admit my ignorance of the exact intricacies of apartheid other than that it was an odious practice better off dead.  I know there were uprisings, but this film posits an outright war that has lingered far too long, its soldiers dead inside, disillusioned and desperate for escape from the grind of senseless killing for a future full of nothing.  This is reflected in Cooper and his antithesis, the unhinged O'Grady (Sean Taylor), a soldier whom the war has defeated but wrongly believes that he still has some control.  He displays this by being insubordinate and bloodthirsty.  He fronts that he's a cold killing machine (and partly he is), but his actions clearly derive from fear and exhaustion of a world that is insane and drives those who partake in to insanity.  He joins in the senseless slaughter of women and children, but he holds Cooper to blame for the frightened killing of the local Witch Doctor (Winston Ntshona).  O’Grady tries to abrogate his complicity in the events that now haunt and threaten him by putting it on someone else for the killing of this very special villager.  The soldiers are picked off by the spirits of those they persecuted and executed.  Even though Cooper did kill the Witch Doctor, he himself is left alive, not once but twice, to bear witness to the madness this world has become as well as to exist under the burdensome nightmares hands like his have conjured.
Roodt's direction is sharp.  He orchestrates the film's action dynamically, and his compositions encompass the grandeur of the locales, isolating the soldiers against the backdrops, making them small and petty.  One could argue he overdoes the crane shots, but it's for a purpose.  It symbolizes the ghosts of South Africa omnisciently bearing down on those who attack it.  The director also does an exemplary job of balancing the war and supernatural elements.  It never throws the audience into pure fantasy.  There's almost always a possible explanation for what's going on.  But by depriving the viewer of that explanation, at least partially, he strengthens the power they have.  Much of the film is a bit too predictable to fully elevate it beyond very good.  But it's message is strong and delivered with enough violence and action to make the bitter pill go down a little smoother.  It's just a damn shame it's something that needs to be said at all.
MVT: Roodt's direction is strong and sure-handed.
Make or Break: The opening ambush gives you a taste of everything the film has in store. 
Score: 7/10

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