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Once Were Warriors (1994)

A review by Damian Cannon.
Copyright © Movie Reviews UK 1998

A horrifying, hard to watch exploration of the hold that domestic abuse has over one Maori family, Once Were Warriors never flinches from its chosen path. Set in modern-day Auckland, where an indigenous people remains repressed, the Heke family is typical. Jake (Temuera Morrison), the father, is on welfare, leaving time to lift weights and go drinking with mates. Jake's wife Beth (Rena Owen) has her work cut out, with five children to care for. It was hard enough to make ends meet before Jake got laid off; a maritime feast, courtesy of his final check, doesn't kiss things better. Unwilling to deal with confrontation, Jake necks beer after beer in the local bar, moaning about women to Bully (Clifford Curtis).

The kids are powerless to act against this simmering conflict, so each evolves their own defence mechanism to keep out the fire. Nig (Julian Arahanga), the eldest, hangs with a local gang and waits for his initiation ceremony. Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell) writes to expunge the pain, spinning stories for her best-friend Toot (Shannon Williams). Boogie (Taungaroa Emile), too sensitive for this hell, is drifting way off course, stealing cars and the like. Only Polly (Rachael Morris) and Huata (Joseph Kairau) avoid Jake's wrath, tiny enough to huddle under Beth's wings. A happy if destitute home, at least until alcohol turns Jake bestial. Then all bets are off.

Ask someone who's just seen Once Were Warriors what their immediate reaction is and, nine times out of ten, they'll say it was a gruelling experience. They're wrong. This particular tale of disintegration is unbearable in its savagery, an excruciating journey to a place that no one sane would want to visit. To call it anything less is to do the cast, and the population on whom the story is based, a disservice. Time and again your fists clench in sympathetic agony, stomach knotted and mind desperate to reel away. Even the end brings scant relief; if you've any heart you'll be writhing and numbed, stunned by this very human apocalypse.

In simplistic terms, Morrison is the bomb that rips the Heke family apart, again and again. The problem is that no one, not even Jake, knows the extent of his fuse; you're just waiting for him to explode, to lash out with incredible force. Yet, at the same time, Morrison makes Jake charismatic, amusing and even loving. That's the conundrum. Jake adores Beth and his kids, he'd kill to protect them. Jake is selfish and uncaring, so twisted and full of hate that he could kill those closest to him. Morrison's performance is so coruscating that he binds these characteristics together, justifying Jake's behaviour even as it destroys him.

Owen, the magnet for Jake's rage, is equally impressive. If you've ever wondered why battered wives don't just walk away from the violence, Owen's performance contains the answer. She loves Jake, despite everything. It's the good times, the fragments where Jake and Beth come together in a love song, that keep her going. Their relationship is one of extremes; they provoke scary emotional responses in one another. When the atmosphere is happy, Once Were Warriors shines with peaceful joy. Yet when booze clouds the vision, things turn ugly. Strangely, and this is in no way an excuse for Jake's behaviour, Beth seems to enjoy lighting his touchpaper. As Jake states, Beth gets a bit too lippy. It's a curious and utterly believable existence.

Lee Tamahori, in his directorial debut, brings the thematic strands together competently and in context. Frustration, rejection and disappointment are the constants of this alienated culture. In a crazy juxtaposition these Maori ex-slaves live in close proximity to the impersonal highway, the bloodstream of New Zealand, yet they have no place in the broader society and economy. It's an easy explanation for their crime, poverty, drunkenness and preying on one another, yet there's a kernel of truth here.

Technically Once Were Warriors is quite assured. When Jake snaps into uncompromising violence, the brief but effective beatings are superbly filmed and choreographed. D. Michael Horton's editing slashes back and forth, cross-linking the very different lives of the Heke family members, reinforcing the cumulative sense of their hopelessness. To ward off disorientation, the score of Murray Grindlay and Murray McNabb creeps between scenes. Used to presage a change in location, these musical bridges smooth the narrative flow.

The worst aspect of Once Were Warriors, if it can be described as such, is that it gets harder to watch with every successive viewing. You know what's coming next and that hurts; forewarned is not forearmed, you just cannot build a defence against this sort of emotional punishment. Yet even in Auckland there is hope and belief, a sense that life not only goes on but that it can improve. For this alone Once Were Warriors should be compulsory viewing, particularly for those who get their kicks from movie violence because "it's not real."

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