O is for Once Were Warriors

“If my spirit can survive living with you for eighteen years, then I can survive anything.”

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Long before Temuera Morrison donned the iconic armour of Jango Fett in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones he was drinking litre bottles of cheap beer and busting skulls at his grimy local bar in this brutally engrossing tale of a Maori family struggling to make ends meat and suffocating themselves under the constant threat of domestic violence.

Morrison plays Jake Heke, the father in question, who loves nothing more than spending intimate moments with his wife Beth (Rena Owen) and wasting even more time with his best friends getting drunk and singing songs into the night. At first, Jake and Beth come across as a couple deeply in love and steeped in tradition. But not all things are as they seem. When Jake has too much to drink his temper gets the better of him and he turns into a raging monster willing to bulldoze down anything and anyone that stands in his path. Unfortunately his wife Beth takes the brunt of his attacks.

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The movie starts off well creating a dwindling and deprived urban setting for the equally deprived characters that we’re about to meet. When we get our first introduction to Jake, he’s brought home a seafood dinner that wows all the family (as if to emphasise their poverty) but is then shot down by Beth when he admits that he’s been let go from his employment. And this is where we get our first inkling that Jake isn’t a man to be messed with.

We get a better idea of who he is shortly after when on a routine night out with the boys at his local drinking den, he gets tore into a younger, more muscular version of himself who interrupts a female friends karaoke performance. The sudden speed and power with which Jake destroys the lad is actually quite shocking but establishes him as an alpha male. The sheer cockiness with which he continues on afterwards like nothing has happened emphasises this. He is ferocious. A ticking time bomb. It’s not long before he unleashes his fury again, this time on his wife during a party at their house. While the first attack seemed like just a proving ground stunt, this one is fuelled by something entirely different. Jake does’t simply slap his wife around, he punches her repeatedly in the face with such evil intent that it’s like he wants to kill her. There’s a real hatred in his eyes when he beats her.

Jake is a man desperately clinging to humanity but edging ever closer to something feral.  He admits during the course of the movie that after he and Beth got together in their youth, they were forced to leave the beautiful, idyllic Maori tribal settlement and move to inner-city Aukland because “he was never good enough for her” in the eyes of her elders. Unlike his wife who descended from ‘royal-like’ blood, he was born from a line of supposed ‘slaves’. Finding this small slice of information out is a key point of the movie because it further slams home the idea that Jake has always felt like a second class citizen (even to himself) trying to prove a point.

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It’s from this point on that we get the gist of what’s going to unfold. Things only go from bad to worse once their son Boogie is arrested and sent to a special home for tearaway boys. The oldest son Nig joins a biker-type gang who all proudly sport traditional Maori style tattoos, destined to endure a life of criminal activity. The only shining light in the household seems to be Grace, who we are to believe is thirteen years old (she looks closer to seventeen). She has reluctantly taken on a subsidiary maternal role in the wake of her mother’s brutal beatings. She’s the one who tucks her younger brother and sister into bed. She’s the one who is up first thing tidying the house after the all-night parties. And she seems to do it without question, without any sort of incredulity, like she’s been doing this for many years now.

In many ways Grace is the heartbeat of the whole movie. A writer, a thinker, the one bright hope that might drill a hole through her parents unrelenting and seemingly merciless brick wall. Her only friends in the whole world are a young kid who sleeps in a rundown shell of a car and of course her notebook, where she writes her stories and most innermost thoughts. Her only real sanctuary. But sadly for her, and us the viewers, her notebook never provides an escape.

I’ve seen my fair share of violent, domestic abusive movies over the years but this one really packs a punch. It’s not just the physical outbursts from Jake that shock, it’s the ongoing threat of sudden, explosive anger that really kept me on edge. Even during moments of silence he is terrifying. One minute he could turn on the charm, the next his eyes turn red with boiling rage. As great as Temuera Morrison is, the movie really belongs to Rena Owen. She plays the struggling wife role well but it’s when she turns on the ‘desperate mother who would do anything for her kids’ switch that she really strikes a home run. Although never a match on Morrison’s onscreen presence, she still has the ability to not be a complete pushover. Which doesn’t mean that she’s a saint herself, far from it. She enjoys a drink as much as anyone but she still remembers her position and her responsibilities.  When a certain fateful incident happens towards the end, she doesn’t hold back. All her emotions are set loose and we get the real sense that she isn’t just Rena Owen anymore, she IS Beth.

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The grungy, cheap look of the movie only helps to construct a credible world in which these characters are ruthlessly imprisoned, and at times it feels like a documentary piece due to it’s intense realism. A bitterly distressing yet rewarding movie that evokes powerful afterthoughts. Not to be taken lightly.

7/10

Gavin Logan – Follow me on Twitter

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One thought on “O is for Once Were Warriors

  1. I’ve heard very good things about this, and it looks like you are also in full support. Well written review. Looks like a brutal, hard to handle, yet satisfying film.

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