New Zealand filmmaker Lee Tamahori (The Edge) directed this brutal but powerful story drawn from the culture of poverty and alienation enveloping contemporary Maori life. Rena Owen plays the beleaguered mother of two boys--one of whom is already in prison while the other contemplates membership in a gang--and a daughter whose potential is being smothered at home. Temuera Morrison gives an outstanding and sometimes shocking performance as the violent head of the household, more adept at keeping up his social stature within his community of friends than holding down... a job. Once Were Warriors pulls no punches, literally and figuratively, but despite the rough going, Tamahori gives us a rare and important insight into a disenfranchised people digging down deep to find their pride. --Tom Keogh, Amazon.com [show more]
This ferocious, visceral and intense powerhouse of a film is without doubt not only the best social melodrama out there but also one of the best films I've ever seen across all genres. Once were Warriors pulls no punches and is certainly not for the feint hearted. The tough, muscular characters are primed for fighting and they don't need a battlefield to take out their beefs. Their hostilities are played out in the bedroom, in front of their children, their friends or in packed bars. This is social realism with a savage kick, the likes of which I've never seen before or since. Yes, it's a violent film but the violence is not gratuitous or sensationalised. It comes with a purpose that is to say that this behaviour is absolutely unacceptable on any level. In order to repel people against violence you've often got to show it in graphic rather than a glorified form and this film does it better than any other work. That's not the sole motivation of the film. It paints a visually stunning whole style of life, showing both the good times and the bad. We are left with a brutally effective family drama.
Once Were Warriors tells the story of an urban Maori New Zealander family, the Hekes, and their problems with poverty, alcoholism and domestic violence, mostly brought on by family patriarch Jake, played by the incredible Tamuera Morrison, a belligerent yet charismatic man with a hair-trigger temper whose unpredictability is his most frightening weapon. The family's ties to their own history appear to be destroyed and this theme plays strong in the background of their struggles. The film's male characters are drawn together in boozed-up solidarity, as if grasping for the collective identity that vanished with their Maori tribal life. Left floundering in an inhospitable urban world, the Hekes have lost touch with their tribal past to become part of a rootless global subculture; second-class citizens, even strangers in their own land and you feel that much of it is of their own making.
This emotionally raw masterpiece presents us with vicious brawls within the Heke family, mainly between Beth and her husband Jake. The film is rendered frighteningly credible in no small part due to the performances of the two good-looking lead characters. They also look the part in terms of possessing pure sinew and brawn. They live in a messy state house with their five children. Jake likes to play the role of the genial, loveable, beer-swilling host, strumming tunes on his guitar, singing songs and appearing to be liked by all. The place he clearly feels most at home is in the pub with his drunken buddies and as long as he has alcohol and his so-called drinking friends, he's content. However that initial sunny glint in his sleepy eyes can change in a flash. If someone crosses him, he lashes out in the blink of an eye, inflicting a ruthless beating on some muscle-bound pretender fuelled by alcohol in a boiling rage. It's safe to say Jake loves to fight! He'd have made a great cage fighter if a scout had spotted him. Beer fuels Jake's resentments and insecurities, and masks his strength. When he's not drinking, he appears to be a self-satisfied man brimming with confidence but of course, that is not the case. He's just been made redundant when we open up the film and looks completely at ease with accepting government handouts. We learn early in the film that Jake is capable of unleashing unrestrained violence on anyone and we expect this to play a major part in the remainder of the film. It is the contrasts in Jake's mean streak with his physical appeal that has kept Beth tied to her violently abusive and at times charming husband. Still, it's also clear to see that she's not simply a victim. In fact Beth, played by the fiery and beautiful Rena Owen, is the central character in this film. She blames herself whenever she is savagely beaten. She has this sad, sensual look of a roughed up Hollywood 50s pin-up queen, radiating a physical vitality that makes sense of this union. Against her better judgement, Beth has fallen and continues to fall for Jake's swagger even while she recoils from his bullying cruelty. Despite her shortcomings she has this indomitable spirit throughout as she struggles to hold together her disintegrating family.
The film establishes early on, the cultural void that's been created in all the main characters' lives due to a loss of their heritage that also affects their circle of friends and this makes you wonder who the family could turn to in their hour of need if everyone appears so lost. These so-called friends give the impression that they would not only be powerless to find answers to the Hekes' predicament but would turn on them if they had to in this dog-eat-dog world. When Jake brings home his drunken buddies for one of his many middle-of-the-night parties in the Heke household, the revellers sing together as if they were gathered around a campfire, wishing for a fellowship that no longer exists in their everyday lives. Behaviour within this group is ritualized and sharply divided along male and female lines. While the men brawl heartily and glower at their women, the women are meant to stand by admiringly and gossip about the men's sexual prowess. When we first see Beth, she still accepts these ground rules, however grudgingly and drinks heavily herself. "You're a hard lady," Jake tells her, delivering what sounds like the highest compliment of which he's capable. "You're a hard man, Jakey," she replies. This sets the tone of their relationship and environment.
Ultimately the toll on the children as a result of their parents' problems becomes the focal point of the film. Fully aware of the kind of battering their mum regularly endures, the children suffer in different ways from their parents' brawls and heavy drinking, left in almost complete neglect. One of the sons, Boogie is on the brink of being put in a reform school having had a history of petty criminal offences, the eldest son Nig who loves his siblings and mother but walks away from the fighting finds solace with an ornately tattooed leather-clad gang who are about to brutally initiate him into their exclusive membership, which offers him a family-like closeness and a steelier sense of identity than Jake's sodden crowd; then there's the gentle affecting teenaged daughter, the precocious Grace, who reflects a hope and optimism that somehow shines even on the family's darkest days where happiness and dreams are possible, but ultimately who suffers in ways too terrible she won't even describe the horrors to her best friend, a homeless boy who lives in an abandoned car, and instead retreats into a private journal that she keeps. They are forced to fend for themselves or clean up after their parent's mess. It is the children's unhappiness that makes Beth examine her life and try to make amends. The inevitable questions arise as to how much damage has the lack of parenting caused and at what stage in the story will it be when Beth finally wakes up from her slumber. She appears to have been content with her own beatings but it clearly becomes unbearable to see her children spiralling into the residual pain. Apart from the uplifting, angelic-like figure of their daughter Grace, there are some other positive scenes. The son who is sent to reform school regains some sense of Maori pride with the aid of a reformatory school teacher. Then there is Beth and Jake themselves, flirting with each other, singing boozy duets and making passionate love. You're therefore never quite sure what's around the corner.
This film is elevated to its breathtaking quality because it not only works for its pitiless depiction of these characters' seemingly hopeless and unhappy lives but also for its genuinely poignant idea of how their collective destiny has gone astray which is also suggested in the brilliant title. You end up with a powerful sense of longing. Even when Jake threatens or exerts brute force, the musical composition brilliantly exhibits and hints at Maori-like instrumentation that echoes the undoubted Maori warrior spirit he possesses except that he cannot harness this furious energy in the right way in which it was intended. Hence there is a sense of ancestral awakening. They have been shaken from their graves by his betrayal of their traditions.
I've already mentioned one of the film's purposes, which is to condemn violence, primarily the type of a domestic nature, as well as abuse, which it succeeds in doing but this is the obvious message in the film which we are all too familiar with. Why Once Were Warriors stands out so brightly in the echelons of moviemaking is because of its brilliant perception in showing the way alcohol triggers sudden personality shifts. It also turns Jake in particular, completely blind to the problems faced by his family as a result of his actions and immune from pain as he is immersed in the booze. He actually thinks Boogie being in reform school will toughen him up and do him some good. Huddled in their room one night with the sounds of anger crashing through the walls, Grace explains to her brother: "People show their true feelings when they're drunk."
I have to pay further homage to the main actors. The two leads are on scintillating form. In Temuera Morrison, we have a male lead who is elemental, charismatic and brutal, and it's his likeability that makes the violence portrayed by his character so chilling and shocking. Jake is a wildly dangerous presence, a tortured man whose only means of addressing his own pain - which he masks so well - is hurting others. He's a cursed soul and you sense his ancestor's spirits won't welcome him into the Maori world unless he starts repenting and pretty soon at that. As for Rena Owen's turn as Beth, you're not likely to see a female dramatic role like hers, nor a one-of-a-kind performance that's so emotionally engaging, complex and complete. Beth represents a voice that past generations of women were probably not allowed to have. There's no Hollywood heroism here from Rena Owen in her harrowing portrayal of this clearly flawed and volatile character with the best of intentions. Owen maintains great intensity throughout and delivers every line with measured force that is just right. As an audience, you really come to realise why Beth has stayed with this monster for so long. The towering performances bring the Academy Awards into perspective because neither of these actors even picked up a nomination.
Marrying the violent scenes with loving ones enhances the impact of the former. Perhaps no scene is more sad than the one in which the family rents a car and sets off on a picnic, happy and in good spirits, only to have everything go wrong when Jake decides to stop for just one drink. The powerful emotion in the film is so affecting. You know that the odds are stacked up against the Hekes before you even take into account the domestic violence, loss of cultural identity and alcoholism, simply because this is a family on the bottom end of the socio-economic scale.
The narrative momentum is such that we're swept along in the enveloping tragedy of the family's life with the full force of a tidal wave. The director has created a convincing setting of daily life in the household and neighbourhood. The drama maybe gritty but it is filmed with cool style. To give you some semblance of the visual style of the film, the opening scene begins with a sharp contrast of an idyllic New Zealand landscape which turns out to be a billboard and we then pan to the grey, decaying reality of the actual setting. The misery seen in this film is something that can be seen anywhere in the world and that is why we can all relate to it in some way.
Throughout the film, you are rooting for the family to come through, including Jake but you sense there will be some inevitable and tragic sacrifices that will need to be made. You hold out hope that the eldest son Nig will take a stand, or that Grace's idealism will have a bearing. Then there are the smaller characters like the reform school teacher or Beth's and Jake's friends, or even Beth's strong rooted family who could make a difference though you doubt this because they are on the periphery of the film. You feel that because of Beth's moral centre in the film, it will be her who will have to rise above everything to change the course of her family's lives. One way or the other, you will find yourself truly gripped by every moment of the movie.
Once Were Warriors (1995) is intensely gritty and somewhat breath taking in its portrayal of a violent and abusive household. A dysfunctional Maori family try to survive with a work shy and abusive father and overly tolerant mother.
Rena Owen (Beth Heke) and Tamuera Morrison (Jake Heke) have a dynamic onscreen chemistry as husband and wife; this along with superb performances from both principle and supporting cast, builds on the characterisation and the storyline to its eventual traumatic conclusion.
Whilst revealing of some of the socio-economic/historic struggles and prejudices within the Maori community , the issues being dealt with in this film are primarily universal and in the harrowing stakes are parallel to and contend with "Nil by Mouth" (although "Nil by Mouth" was released four years later).
The climax of "Once Were Warriors" gives the viewer a much needed sense of vengeance whilst also allowing for the idea that there is hope for the future.
If you enjoy films that take you on an emotional rollercoaster, then "Once Were Warriors" is definitely worth a watch.
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A New Zealand film looking at the underworld Maori life of Auckland. A woman is on the verge of a nervous breakdown after 18 years of marriage to her violent husband, who repeatedly beat her over the years but maintained that he loved her. The ramifications of this constant turmoil take their toll - her family starts to split as one of her sons joins a gang and the other ends up in a welfare home. The gifted daughter seems unaffected by the disfunctional family unit, but soon she encounters events that changes the family's life forever.
Please note this is a region 2 DVD and will require a region 2 (Europe) or region Free DVD Player in order to play Eighteen years after Jake (Temuera Morrison) and Beth (Rena Owen) were married Beth still finds him irresistible Jake is a muscular handsome man who exudes sexual energy But he spends most of his time in the bar demanding respect and becoming drunk and violent Beth struggles to keep her family together through the violence takes its toll – one son has joined a vicious gang the other has been taken to a welfare home but she remains faithful to Jake Still untouched is Grace the beautiful teenaged daughter a gifted writer and thinker and the most vulnerable member of the family What happens to her changes the family’s life forever Beth will at last be forced to make a choice and to seek a new alternative for her own survival