Once Were Warriors, a contemporary drama about a Maori family living in an urban New Zealand slum, is the feature debut of director Lee Tamahori. To describe the film with the usual adjectives--"raw," "powerful," "hard-hitting"--would be accurate, and then some. The theme of the film is domestic violence, and Tamahori presents the scary collisions of various members of the Heke family in such a bold, explosive style that, at times, the film is almost unwatchable. But "raw" doesn't do the film complete justice--it might suggest that Once Were Warriors is crude, that its power comes from unsophisticated anger. But the film is more than just heartfelt--it's a stunningly skillful piece of moviemaking with an expertly structured plot. Tamahori, working from a script by Riwia Brown (based on a story by Alan Duff), traces how one burst of physical or emotional battery sets off another, leading inexorably to horrifying tragedy.
The mother is Beth, played by Rena Owen, a tall woman of such heroic beauty, she looks like she should be carved into the prow of a ship. Beth loves Jake (Temuera Morrison), her husband of 18 years, and their five kids, but Jake is a hard-drinking muscleman who resorts to his fists, and sometimes to spousal rape, when he and his wife argue. He loses his job and goes on the dole as the film begins.
The eldest two boys are headed for juvenile delinquency, one (Julian "Sonny" Arahanga) with a street gang, the members of which tattoo their faces in an approximation of Maori warrior scarification. The gang members are like real-life versions of Mad Max types, postapocalyptic sci-fi characters. The other boy (Taungaroa Emile) is packed off to a reformatory, where he begins to learn something of his cultural heritage. All of these kids, and their anxious, doting mother, clearly love each other, but a comfortable home life is impossible with the old man dragging a pack of his drinking buddies home every night from the tavern to party in the living room. The sensitive, talented, sweet-natured eldest girl, Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), who cleans up after the parties and tends to the little ones when her mother is too badly beaten to get up, seems particularly vulnerable in this environment.
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It may be noted that this material isn't new--many, many dramas have shown the savagery bred in the lower depths. It feels fresh in Once Were Warriors because of the thundering, no-holds-barred style of the director. When Jake repeatedly punches Beth in the face, Tamahori stages it like a John Wayne brawl or a Martin Scorsese boxing match--as if the whole social conflict between familial love and the drunken misery of poverty had been channeled into the clash between this man and this woman. Yet the heightened tone doesn't at all weaken the impact of scenes like these on a specific, human level.
Once Were Warriors is a deeply, bitterly sad film, but it's too terrifyingly energetic, too bristling with rage, to be depressing, and too assured as cinema to be dismissed. Though some of the kids are clearly not trained actors, they all have tremendous charm, and the performances of Owen and Morrison are knockouts. Stuart Dryburgh, the cinematographer who drenched the New Zealand rain forest of The Piano in an otherworldly blue-green glow, gives this modern housing project a patina of piss-yellow squalor.
Once Were Warriors is a near-great film, and like so many near-great films, it falls short only when the filmmakers are pointedly trying for greatness. Brown's script is laced with little homilies asserting that the Hekes' troubles stem from their separation from their tribal roots. Of course, cultural alienation is no help in the poor urban classes, but one suspects that domestic despots like Jake would exist even with the most passionate embrace of culture by a family or a community. They're simply a fact of life among the poor, and not only in that world.
In the course of the film, we learn that Beth, who's a full-blooded Maori, defied the elders of her tribe to marry Jake--they didn't approve of him because he was descended from slave stock. The effect of this revelation, no doubt unintentional but unfortunate, is to suggest that the elders were right, that Jake's proving to be a bad husband could have been predicted by his racial impurity. Once Were Warriors is too great of heart for this kind of simplistic bromide--tribalism can only shrink a story this universal.