Movie Review: The Last Victims

The Last Victims is a mystery drama thriller set in South Africa, directed by Maynard Kraak and starring Sean Cameron Michael and Kurt Egelhof. Centred around a former death squad member and a survivor, the unlikely perpetrator-victim duo embark on a road trip to locate other members in a bid to find the bodies of a missing anti-apartheid cell. Written by Sean Robert Daniels, this political mystery drama had the earmarks of a timely and suspenseful film in the vein of Red Dust. Grappling with some of South Africa’s darkest days through flashbacks and counterbalancing through a journey of healing, restoration and forgiveness, The Last Victims could have been incredibly powerful and moving. While the film wrestles with challenging and important themes and has some quality ingredients, it never equals the sum of its parts.

Sean Cameron Michael and Kurt Egelhof are the guiding lights for this “truth and reconciliation” drama as Dawid and Pravesh. Cameron Michael is an accomplished actor best known for his international TV roles on Black Sails, MacGyver and Shooter. He’s got a look that immediately adds gravitas to any role and honours a good casting decision with a dependable co-lead performance in The Last Victims. The disconnect and lack of chemistry with his co-lead in Egelhof works at first as the two seem destined to work independently of each other. However, Egelhof’s flat performance and this uneasy partnership become a stumbling stone as this core dynamic struggles to evolve and fuel the underlying drama. They headline a large ensemble of varying levels of performance. The most noteworthy supporting acts include: Grant Swanby, Mark Mulder and Wilson Dunster.

While The Last Victims leans on some convincing and earnest key performances, it’s distanced by a confusing narrative and a zigzagging edit. Using flashbacks, it’s not easy to distinguish who’s who based on the before-and-after casting and it takes a while to connect the past and present. Intermittently diving back into the past, the here and then has a discordant feel until you realise the focus is on the present. The flashback sequences are disturbing in their racist and violent depictions and are made problematic by their apathy and air of casual hatred with contrasts between sunny braais and extreme Vlakplaas torture.

“I can’t handle the truth.”

Beyond the road trip storytelling, The Last Victims is compelled by the moody underlying mystery as the investigation uncovers dark secrets, clues, encounters unreliable testimony and obstacles. The driving soundtrack reinforces this bold spirit of investigation and recovery. While this cross-country journey around Kwazulu-Natal has a sprawling feel against its beautiful landscapes, it’s a bumpy ride. There’s an interesting tension between the central pairing, which is propelled by their initial engagements, power plays and even seating arrangement. However, its muddied by tonal imbalances as comical buddy movie undertones begin to surface. It’s good that the characters have a sense of humour but this indulgence breaks the cumulative effect of any slow-creeping tension.

Then, the handling of action scenes diminishes the dramatic tension even further. Car chases are tricky to get right and The Last Victims bungles some of its action sequences. There’s a way to address being followed by a car before launching into a dangerous car chase. Without any nuance, it can become on the nose and cheesy as is the case with The Last Victims. There’s no damage to the vehicles from gun fire, the lack of distance in the following makes it obvious and the stereotypical henchmen add another layer of unintentional comedy. More forethought and a detailed approach would have improved and grounded the low-key action in the gritty world of The Last Victims.

One of the most glaring issues with The Last Victims is that it seems like a Mahindra advert. The pickup truck is a cloyingly obvious and overt product placement. As the primary mode of transport in this road movie, its essentially a supporting character. The vehicle’s branding is seen coming into and leaving scenes so many times it becomes a distraction in a world of very few to no brands. As a prop, the vehicle offers very little value beyond simply being a mode of transport and its alternate design makes it stand out. For example, using a German auto brand would have couched the victim-perpetrator relationship in more deep-seated and universal themes.

The Last Victims is a mixed bag. The political mystery drama is built on sturdy performances, wields some powerful themes, has a strong premise, benefits from on-location shooting and is compelled by a moody feel and driving soundtrack. Unfortunately, it’s derailed by its see-sawing tone, varying level of performance, distracting product placement, so-so co-lead chemistry, zigzag storytelling, discordant casting and confusing edit. The film had great potential and carries an important message but is undermined by fundamental issues.

The bottom line: Erratic