In a terrifying barroom sequence about 15 minutes into Once Were Warriors, a stark melodrama about the lives of Maori tribesman living in the urban slums of New Zealand, Jake Heke (Temeura Owen)--a pumped-up, alcoholic patriarch of a troubled Maori clan who looks like Robert DeNiro on steroids--watches as a beefy young tough beats the living hell out of a guy who got on his bad side.
Big Jake isn't impressed. A few minutes later, he jumps the younger man while he's making a jukebox selection, bats him around the room like a soccer ball, pushes him to the floor, and kicks him repeatedly in the ribs and face. When his foe is so mangled that he just lies there gasping in a scarlet pool of his own blood, Jake resumes drinking as if nothing much had happened.
Once Were Warriors serves up scenes this intense every 15 minutes or so. What makes the film's violence so disturbing is that the people who commit and endure it just accept it as a fact of daily life, like high unemployment or rotten plumbing.
The film views the Maoris as members of a defeated ethnic group who lost track of their culture and embraced the warped values of their white oppressors. The title says it all: before their enslavement at the hands of New Zealand colonists, the Maori were a race of warriors. They now make crude, adolescent attempts to assert their warrior identities in an urban world of poverty, drugs, and despair. This brings tremendous misery on their loved ones. These emasculated men expend their feelings of rage and powerlessness by beating up enemies, friends, spouses, lovers, children, and anybody else who ticks them off.
The family's steel-willed mother, Beth Heke (Rena Owen, in an alternately fierce and dejected star turn), endures frequent beatings at the hands of her drunken husband, yet can't envision life without him. Her sullen older son, Nig (Julian Ahanga), seeks refuge in a surrogate family, a Maori street gang that prizes big muscles and elaborate facial tattoos; her sensitive second son, Boogie, (Taungaroa Emile), gets caught committing petty crimes and is taken away by a state welfare agency to be raised in an experimental Maoricentric reform school; and her three daughters can do little more than look on as the men destroy themselves.
The oldest of the Heke girls, Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), is an angelically patient 13-year-old who does everything she can to hold the family together. She's so responsible, sensitive, and well-adjusted that you just know she's headed for tragedy.
It's this last strand of the film's narrative that creates artistic conundrums. For the first part of its running time, Once Were Warriors adopts an almost documentary approach, but as soon as the fates start closing in on the Hekes, you can feel the picture straining after an excess of horror, pushing too hard to shock and appall and move you.
The film's director isn't entirely to blame. The novel on which the film was based, written in Clockwork Orange-ish first-person dialect by New Zealand journalist Alan Duff, also alternates between straightforward, semirealistic plotting and the brand of insanely jacked-up tabloid luridness we associate with the hyperreal, heavily stylized films of Sam Peckinpah and Oliver Stone, and the City-Life-is-Hell branch of American fiction typified by the works of Andrew Vachss (Strega), James Ellroy (White Jazz), and Hugo Selby, Jr. (Last Exit to Brooklyn).
But director Lee Tamahori doesn't help things when he stages fights as if directing a Stallone movie, with muscular adults delivering dozens of crushing kicks and punches to each others' faces and bodies--blows that would probably maim or kill a man in real life, even a huge one. And as (rightfully) appalling as Jack Heke's beating of Beth is, in visual terms, it feels a bit contrived; this bellowing ogre hits his wife so hard and so often that he covers the walls of their small home with big, Jackson Pollock-style sunbursts of blood. It's a wonder the kids don't cut their toes on knocked-out teeth when they walk around barefoot.
If you're a cynical moviegoer, or just a person who has a low tolerance for prolonged exposure to horror, you may wonder if the conception of these scenes comes from the director's desire to win acclaim as a poet of ultraviolence rather than an urge to serve the script. In some ways, the film sometimes feels too crudely "stylish" and too damned anthropological for its own good--as if the filmmakers were so determined not to sentimentalize the narrative's numerous outrages that they lost any sense of restraint or perspective, and ended up exploiting the very people whose sad lives earned their sympathy to begin with.
It's impossible to sit through the film's bar brawls, gang initiation rituals, and grueling rounds of domestic violence without feeling shaken, even physically violated, but that's exactly the sort of reaction Tamahori and screenwriter Riwia Brown hoped to conjure up, so I suppose I should credit the film with achieving its goals. The film isn't fraudulent--just miscalculated and sometimes overdone. At its best, it's a brutal variation on kitchen-sink melodrama, with sharp details about a rarely chronicled class of disenfranchised people--an investigation of the thin line separating warriors from thugs.
Once Were Warriors. Fine Line. Temeura Owen, Rena Owen. Script by Riwia Brown, from Alan Duff's novel. Directed by Lee Tamahori. Opens April 14.
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