Available on blu-ray on September 6th from Film Movement is the outstanding New Zealand drama Once Were Warriors (1994), which was based on the bestselling novel of the same title by Alan Duff. It is a grim and incredibly powerful portrayal of the struggles of an urban Maori family, whose father is an alcoholic with a penchant for extreme brutality upon random people and his family. Beth (Rena Owen) is married to Jake (Temuera Morrison) and they live in a state house in a very urban city in New Zealand with their five children. Jake spends his time receiving unemployment, drinking at the local pub, and bringing the party back to his home afterwards.
The book and the movie are a searing statement on the epidemic of domestic violence that had been occurring in New Zealand at the time. The story is superb and all of the dialogue seems to be realistic to the lifestyles of the people and the specific characters. The screenwriters and director were never afraid of shying away from the taboo topics of alcoholism, rape, and domestic abuse. The events that take place are harsh and disturbing, with the fights being absolutely vicious and intense. They focus on themes that touch on the New Zealand culture, poverty, family, domestic abuse and fighting and how alcohol plays a role in both. It also displays a subculture of New Zealanders who live in a world that is consumed with drinking and fighting, in many ways similar to soccer hooliganism, bikers, and other subcultures around the world.
The performance from the two leads are brilliant and Oscar worthy, a damning statement on the politics involved with the Oscar nomination process. Morrison exhibits an unbridled intensity and powerful rage that is primarily exhibited when he becomes heavily intoxicated. He displays a heartfelt side, but that is overcome by this darkness that is within his character. Owen is equally impressive, showing great emotion and the power to survive and stay strong for her children. The rest of the cast were all super as well, especially the older children who were put through their own individual crises relating to their family life. For most of the child actors, this was one of their first on-screen roles.
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The camera work was nicely done, featuring several crane shots, pull aways, and close ups that added to the dramatics of the narrative. The location setting created an environment that you instantly recognized as a lower class urban setting, it featured dilapidated buildings, graffiti, broken down cars, and gangs. It was reminiscent of Los Angeles, Manhattan in the 1980’s, areas of England, and almost any other urban city.
It’s not necessarily a feel good motion picture, but the excellent story and outstanding performances make this drama worth seeing.