Once Were Warriors (New Zealand, 1994)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Once Were Warriors, a New Zealand export, is centered upon the touchy yet timely topic of domestic violence. It is not, however, merely another "domestic violence motion picture." With its complex cultural backdrop and its stark view of this societal cancer, Once Were Warriors attains a level where it is equally painful and potent.

The critical themes of this movie are universal, even though there is a great deal of background that only a New Zealander (or a student of that country's history) can appreciate. Nevertheless, though many elements of the subtext may be lost to outside viewers, the key issue -- the brutal cycle of violence and denial within a family -- is brought to the fore in a manner that necessitates no special awareness.

It is helpful, although not essential, to know a little about Maori society and culture (Maoris are the Polynesian warrior-race who settled -- or, more appropriately, conquered -- New Zealand some 1000 years ago). Equality is not a basic tenant of the Maori lifestyle, at least as depicted in this film. However, alcoholism and unemployment are. It's the lot of the woman to work, while the man -- the "protector" -- spends all day at the local pub getting drunk. Wife-beating, while distasteful, is acceptable behavior, especially if the woman has the audacity to talk back to her husband.

The movie takes place in an urbanized area of south Auckland, where Beth and Jake Heke (Rena Owen and New Zealand soap stud Temuera Morrison) live in a small house with four of their five children. The fifth, Nig (Julian Arahanga), has moved out to join a local gang. At first glance, Beth and Jake seem to have a solid marriage. They gripe at each other, but all seems pretty tranquil, and there are moments of genuine affection. But when Jake is drunk (which is frequently), his temper is easily ignited, and when one of Beth's barbs pushes him too far, the bloody and violent results are terrible to behold. Many films have depicted wife-beatings. Few have been as graphic and difficult to watch.

Beth and Jake's troubles have a domino effect on their children. Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) has been arrested, and when neither of his parents appear at his court hearing, he is sentenced to enter social welfare custody. Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), the Heke's thirteen-year old daughter, is having as much difficulty coping with her own sexuality as with the brutal chaos of her home life.

The acting throughout Once Were Warriors is uniformly strong, with leading and supporting actors turning in performances that range from credible to electric. The musical score, by Murray McNabb, is evocative, and a perfect match for the drab, dreary colors suffusing Stuart Dryburgh's camerawork. Great pains have been taken to emphasize that everyone in this film is trapped by one thing or another -- if not their circumstances, then their personality. The only moment of serenity -- the opening scene depicting a pastoral setting -- turns out to be an illusion: a billboard in the midst of a gray city.

By anchoring Once Were Warriors in the turmoil of a Maori family, director Lee Tamahori takes full advantage of an opportunity not only to dissect the forces that lead to domestic violence, but also to focus on the clash between Maori traditions and modern values. The snares laid for men and women are not the only concepts put forth to ponder. Once Were Warriors works, to some degree, on three levels: the visceral, the emotional, and the intellectual, and it is the amalgamation of these that makes this a memorable film.

Once Were Warriors (New Zealand, 1994)

Ranked #110 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 1:39
U.S. Release Date: 1995-02-24
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Sexual Situations, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1