Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors constantly hits you in the gut. The entire film lies in stark contrast to its opening, which includes a gorgeous lush view of the New Zealand of our minds – the New Zealand from movies like Whale Rider; trees galore on unsoiled beaches abutted by a rich tide under deep blue skies. As the camera pulls away, we realize we were being rapturous over a mere poster. The reality is that the Maori natives are living an existence no better than that of Boyz N the Hood. Poverty, violence, rape and drugs are everywhere. These societal issues are brought to the forefront of Once Were Warriors.
The film highlights the 18-year-marriage of Jake and Beth Heke, and their five children. Jake (Temuera Morrison) is an unemployed Maori who is strikingly handsome, muscular and loving when sober. He is also a monster when drunk. Beth (Rena Owen) still remembers the old traditions warmly, but they are too far in the past to be of much help, and her only strength is her smart tongue, which causes Jake to beat her to a pulp regularly. Now these aren’t your normal TV-movie attacks. This film drives home the realities of domestic abuse like none I’ve ever seen. Once Were Warriors is not light fare. It is a painful and very effective tale about the destructive power of abuse, rape, alcoholism, and violence in general that easily transcends its New Zealand origin.
Unable to see a way out of her situation, Beth sees her oldest son join a violent gang where membership means you become a weight-lifter and have your whole body, including your face, tattooed. The next oldest lad winds up being taken away by Welfare, and Beth, the oldest daughter, who works the hardest to keep the family together, has to constantly fight to keep sex and drugs out of her life.
Besides being an unflinching look into the modern remains of the Maori culture and New Zealand social issues – not really big drawing cards for an American audience even though they’re sadly similar to our own cultural issues – the acting and direction here are absolutely amazing. It is in fact one of my favorite films.
The title refers to the fact that the Maori were once a race of fierce fighters, born with the rage of their ancestors deep in their souls. The story tells us what has become of the centuries of rage, leaving the audience with a warning about what may be happening in your country, in your town, in your home. When Once Were Warriors ended, I felt my body had survived a blistering battle. But it felt good.
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Review by Rene Carson © 2004 FilmFetish.com