Once Were Warriors – Film Review

Brutal, powerful and at times hard-to-watch drama about a Maori family wrecked by the domestic violence. You get an indication of what you’re up for in the opening shot: a picture-perfect view of the New Zealand landscape set to a wistful tune that quickly reveals itself an advertising billboard near an ugly and noisy construction site. If you want the pretty, look elsewhere.

The movie is powered by two remarkable performances. Beth (Rena Owen) had left her ancestral roots behind to marry Jake (Temuera Morrison) to the disapproval of her family, and 18 years later they live in a squalid state house with their five children. Beth and Jake make a good-looking couple who are still wild for each other, and on their good days they laugh, dance, sing and flirt with warmth. But they also both have an explosive temper, and booze is a frequent guest in the household. Things get even worse when Jake gets laid off at work, and spends time and welfare money drinking at a bar with his buddies. So Jake turns into a violent monster, and Beth wakes up the next day on the bloodied pillow with her face beaten to a pulp. When her bestie visits the next morning, the two shrug it off as a woman’s lot.

Their three eldest children deal with their broken home in their own ways: the two sons turn to street gangs and delinquency, while 13-year-old Grace retreats into her journal and friendship with a spaced out homeless teenage boy who lives under the freeway in an abandoned car. If you suspect that her good, pure nature marks her out as the story’s most tragic character, you’re right.

If it all sounds grim and depressing, it is, but it’s no relentless feel-bad experience either. For all the in-your-face violence, the movie captures the family in both good times and bad. As Jake, Morrison invests his character with immense charisma and charm, which makes his outbursts even more shocking. And Owen is simply unforgettable playing a passionate woman who by the end finally finds it within herself to halt the destructive spiral. The social commentary on the Maori hardships in the modern society has a hard edge without coming off as a sermon.

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