This movie has been on my radar for about a year or so. I had been meaning to watch it and finally rented it on Youtube. It was on my radar because one of my favorite comedians, Jim Florentine, had brought it up a few times in his podcast. He mentioned how it is one of his favorite movies and how it had really affected him because there was no other movie like it. But I know everyone has their own taste in movies so here is my take on it.
When the movie first opens it give you some tracking shots of life around the poorer parts of New Zealand. Townhouses by the highway, flea markets.. you get the idea. It had a very “Menace II Society” feel to it at first. I have little doubt that the producers and/or director of this movie had seen Menace II Society as it came out the year before (in 1993) and touched on similar societal aspects. But soon the movie soon took on its own personality.
You are introduced to the main character Jake (played by Temuera Morrison). He seems likable enough. He comes home from work after losing his job and his wife (played by Rena Owen) gives him an earful. I thought “here we go, another ballbuster”. But that’s not how the movie went at all. It is not long into it that you realize things are not what they seem. Jake is not a big affable guy, far from it. The movie goes into some very dark areas, the darkest in fact. But its very real.
There are so many facets and so much character development that this thing could easily have been three hours if they didn’t carefully edit it, which they did to perfection. The movie was a wild ride through the twists and turns of poor Māori life in New Zealand. The Māori are the native people of that island nation.
Alcoholism, gangs, domestic abuse and much worse are currents through this movie. But it isn’t exploitative. There are positive points and humanity in all its forms are on full display. The movie is based on the 1990 best-selling novel by Alan Duff. Most great movies are based on novels. The advantage of making a screenplay from a novel is you get to cherry-pick all the goods from it and whittle it down. However, if not done properly, you can end up with a confusing movie with no real rhythm or coherence. Once Were Warriors avoids those pitfalls perfectly.
When the movie ended I wanted to stay with this group and learn more about the brothers and the where some of the other characters ended up. I don’t want to say too much for fear of spoiling any of the movie. The great news for me is that there is a sequel which was well-received by critics and the general public. It is called What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? and I am looking forward to seeing it.
It is no mystery to me why this movie became the highest grossing movie of all time in New Zealand. It also received positive reviews by movie critics of the era. Roger Ebert gave it 3.5 out of 4 stars. On his scale I would give it four stars. On the Baldy Potato scale, however, I give it 94%. Its masterfully acted, filmed, edited, and directed. I will watch it again when I think I can handle it because I am sure there are some subtleties I missed. This is a must-watch if you are a fan the drama genre.