WHAT IT'S ABOUT:
In 2010 three friends document their attempt to track down a con man in Cape Town. They formulate a simple plan, but the situation spirals out of control and they soon find themselves in over their heads.
WHAT WE THOUGHT:
419 is a tense little found-footage thriller with a bit of horror thrown in. The misadventure starts with an actor from New York who lost a lot of money to a 419 scam in South Africa. Such scams are more generally associated with Nigerian crime - 419 is the legal code for a fraud offence in the West African country - but its name and use has grown worldwide and inspired many "I know a Nigerian Prince!" jokes.
But for Mike, the actor, this turns out to be a bad idea - for him or for Scott and Ned, who join their friend to find the guy who scammed him. Suitably, Ned is a documentary filmmaker and takes along a camera to capture the adventure. In true found-footage style, the adventure does not end well - something the film alludes to very early on. Then again, if you heard that three Americans were going into Cape Town townships to look for a conman, you'd know it's a bad idea.
Despite the name, this movie has little to do with 419 scams or scams in general. For those themes, there are local alternatives such as the excellent series Impilo: The Scam. That show deals extensively with the themes of conmen, township crime and surviving in the ghetto - ditto for iNumber Number, Gomora and The Queen.
419 is more of a tourism-gone-bad story. The scam is a MacGuffin to get the characters into this situation, aided by Ezra - a local street hustler Mike once met on a film shoot. Through the movie, they visit several of Cape Town's internal and outlying townships, particularly Khayelitsha, shining a light on some of the country's poorest suburbs. It's a love letter to South Africa - showcasing Cape Town's beauty, our sweet soft drinks, and even a trip to Robben Island - but also touches on the rough township life that would shock foreigners.
South Africans, though, might be a little jaded for the content. The errors the characters make are quite apparent from the start. Nobody in their right mind would go into a township they don't know, asking people if they know someone called Lebogang - a ubiquitous local name. Crime-wary locals would also not trust Ezra, who keeps dodging questions with passive-aggressive charm and at one point has an aggressive armed confrontation with another dodgy-looking character. Really, if these guys had a little bit more sense, they might not have ended up the way they did.
But that's the point of a found-footage movie - watching characters make bad decisions that take them deeper into the abyss. Unfortunately, many such movies are just plain bad or boring, with a few exceptions such as Europa Report, Devil's Pass and Cloverfield. The difference comes down to two factors: are the actors believable, and does the footage feel legit?
In 419's case, the answer to both is yes - and that carries the movie. If you stop to think about it, the characters have no plan whatsoever, and the script has to strain to create its conclusion. But everything comes together because the characters are believable, as is the footage. There are no odd angles or contrived reasons why someone has a camera on them. 419 feels like a real documentary, complete with interviews that you'll truly buy. And a special nod should go to Tshamano Sebe, who, despite having a small role, clinches the final act's impact.
Though things end badly for the characters, 419 is not a horror. It has one moment of extremity, but the rest of the film is a slow-burn thriller. It might not be as shocking or unnerving to South Africans as it would be to foreigner viewers, yet it's interesting to see our country represented through a different lens.
WATCH THE TRAILER HERE: