“Moffie” is a homophobic slur in Afrikaans, and it forms the constant soundtrack to Oliver Hermanus’s new movie. Set in the early 1980s, it depicts a conscripted soldier struggling with his sexuality in an environment that is hostile to anyone who isn’t an avatar of white, aggressively heterosexual, masculinity. It’s a contemplative, thoughtful movie that is as much about the tedious mundanity of war as its hellish brutality.
Nick (Kai Luke Brummer) already finds himself as a fish out of water when he joins the army as a conscript. He speaks English rather than Afrikaans. Given a tough ride by his fellow recruits, things get worse as he is immediately placed under the command of the coarse, psychotic Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser) — a man whose evil seems to be stored, Samson-like in his porn star moustache. Nick does bond, however, with fellow recruit Stassen (Ryan de Villiers) and this triggers desires he has long buried.
Hermanus’s movie unfolds in a world of intolerance, with the Apartheid regime in full effect and “sympathy” for those of a different skin colour or sexual orientation a punishable offence. The homophobia is violent on a physical level, but also on a mental level so severe that it provokes real tension and darkness throughout the movie. A horror-esque shot of an empty shower cubicle thrums with foreboding and terror, with the strings of Braam du Toit’s unusual score foreshadowing nightmares to come.
Brummer’s performance is quietly engrossing, imbuing the character with palpable repression and sadness. This is a world of machismo for which he is entirely unprepared, despite the ostentatious porn mag his dad gave him before he left. The relationship that unfolds between him and de Villiers is tender and intimate, but tragically never separates itself from the impossibility of making it work amid this atmosphere.
Sadly, Moffie somewhat loses its punch as it moves into the final third. An eight-month flash forward thrusts the narrative right into the heart of conflict, realised via a stark contrast of down-and-dirty violence and scenes of poetic splendour as soldiers march, silhouetted by DOP Jamie Ramsay against a tangerine sky in scenes reminiscent of Roger Deakins’ spectacular work in Sicario.
The obvious touchstone for the movie’s game of two halves storytelling is Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket and, like that war movie classic, it flags somewhat when it actually gets to the meat of the battlefield. The central narrative almost evaporates and peters out as the movie winds towards an inevitably, and necessarily, ambiguous climax.
But there’s a quiet power to Moffie that makes it an interesting and worthwhile slice of drama. Hermanus conveys the pervasive intolerance of the time period with unflinching, shocking detail and crafts a hellscape of a world, in which something dreadful always appears to be on the horizon and so every bit of warmth must be treasured. Even if it might get you killed.
Dir: Oliver Hermanus
Scr: Oliver Hermanus, Jack Sidey
Cast: Kai Luke Brummer, Ryan de Villiers, Hilton Pelser, Matthew Vey, Wynand Ferreira
Prd: Eric Abraham, Thérèsa Ryan, Jack Sidey
DOP: Jamie Ramsay
Music: Braam du Toit
Country: South Africa
Run time: 104 mins
Moffie is available on VOD via Curzon Home Cinema from 24th April.