Moffie, the latest effort from South African filmmaker Oliver Hermanus, isn’t a horror movie. However, it almost feels like one. After the film opens with protagonist Nicholas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brummer) having dinner with his family, he leaves them to join his fellow soldiers in combat and enter the eighth circle of Hell. Only instead of supernatural entities, the real boogeyman is hyper-masculinity that programs young men like Nicholas to hate themselves and be super careful about being found out to avoid cruel punishment. Even the ominous score that plays as Nicholas leaves his family and goes off into the darkness indicates that terrors await him.
The film takes place in 1981 South Africa. White boys over 16 are forced to serve in the military in order for the country’s white minority government to defend the Apartheid regime and combat “die swart gevaar” (the so-called black danger). Additionally, homosexuality is deemed illegal with the term “Moffie” being an Afrikaans pejorative thrown at gay men that suggests weakness and being effeminate. Two things that Sergeant Brand (Hilton Pelser), the sadistic leader of Nicholas’ army band, does not tolerate. To make matters worse, the casual homophobia shown by Nicholas’ fellow muscle-clad soldiers makes him more uneasy about being discovered. As a spark develops between Nicholas and fellow soldier Dylan (Ryan de Villiers), their love still remains hidden. Kept away in a place as deep as the trench where their spark is first ignited as they spoon together one night.
Much like the cinematography on the film Beach Rats, another coming-of-age tale that tackles toxic masculinity and queerness, the camerawork by DP Jamie Ramsay expertly reflects the main protagonist’s uneasy feeling of being closeted. The aforementioned trench sequence is a vital symbolization of that struggle as it takes place at night time with the camera closing in on both Nicholas and Dylan as if they’re trapped in a physically tight space. One that they have to themselves, but nobody can enter. As Nicholas goes out during the daytime, the sun-lit setting contrasts the dark, hateful underworld he finds himself in. An abyss where peril lurks to the degree that a tranquil game of volleyball on a sunny day becomes disrupted by a horrific act of violence.
As for the acting, lead actor Kai Luke Brummer is in exemplary form. It’s a rather refined performance where Brummer is just having Nicholas observe and process everything around him. Yet, it’s still fitting because, like his fellow soldiers, Nicholas is forced to constantly keep his composure and be impassive. Other than Brummer, Hilton Pelser is the only other standout as the alarmingly reprehensible Sergeant Brand. Although Ryan de Villiers has a rather underwritten role as Dylan, the benevolent object of Nicholas’ affection, he still serves his role well.
In all fairness, the forbidden romance is more of a story asset in Moffie than a focal point. One element in depicting a queer man’s journey of living closeted in an authoritarian regime. As a result, Moffie ends up only scratching the surface of the racial conflict during that time period. But as it tackles how chauvinism breeds prejudice and self-hatred, that is where Moffie is at its most impactful along with the central performance and stunning camera work.