Fantasia 2021 Review: INDEMNITY, This South African Conspiracy Thriller Delivers
Every night, Theo (Jerrid Geduld) is jolted awake by nightmares. He sees his colleagues perish in a sea of out of control flames, and even though he can't exactly pin down why, he feels culpable for their horrific deaths. This PTSD sends him into the depths of alcoholism, which ends up getting him summarily excused from the fire department, and with no work left to distract him, things are only getting worse. His wife and child become collateral damage, and his crumbling family unit just adds to his sense of despair; one more thing he's destroyed.
As if his sudden unemployment weren't enough, a terrible crime is committed in his home of Cape Town, and he's the prime suspect. He's innocent, but when a cadre of cops and mercenaries are dispatched to bring him in, he doesn't have the time or the means to clear his name. They are shooting to kill, and he's their only target.
What follows is a raucous conspiracy thriller with action to spare, something of an anomaly in South Africa, where director Travis Taute's Indemnity is the most ambitious such film ever to come out of the burgeoning local film industry. At right around two hours, Indemnity does drag a bit from time to time when the action slows down to pile on a few tons of exposition, but once it cranks back up, it's an easy film to love. And honestly, what's a conspiracy thriller without an unnecessarily convoluted plot to keep the audience guessing?
On the surface, there's relatively little deviation from what we might expect of such a film. A little bit Bourne, a little bit Manchurian Candidate, and a lot South African, it's the local flavor that really piques the audience's interest here. There is plenty of inter-African political intrigue, with the influencing of foreign coup attempts, apartheid hangovers, and overt racial politics (all of the heroes are black, and all of the villains white, as far as I can recall) all front and center in the narrative. I'd be the first to admit that my own extremely limited knowledge of African politics was a bit of a hindrance in unpacking all of the nuance, but there's enough support in the dialogue for the attentive outsider to get along just fine.
Indemnity is the latest in an increasingly interesting wave of genre cinema from South Africa that has been building for the last decade or so. In fact, Taute was the co-writer for 2018's festival hit Number 37, a distinctly South African riff on Rear Window, though there's also been 2017's Five Fingers For Marseilles, and don't forget the recent popular Netflix series, Blood & Water. It's an evolving film scene, and with Indemnity as with the others, it feels as though they are still figuring out the mechanics of making big genre films but they haven't quite found their own narrative style yet, as lots of the work feels very polished, but can also feel a bit too derivative. As a conspiracy thriller, Indemnity check all of the boxes, but if I'm being super critical, I kind of wish some of those checks went a little bit outside the box.