The Dark Horse – Chess as the game of life. (Film Review)
A bi-polar chess master, tossed out of his brother’s house because of insurmountable differences, taking shelter under a memorial on Kaiti Hill, an obelisk that resembles a giant chess piece, is one of the many images that imbue the strikingly original film The Dark Horse with intelligence that acts as a panacea to the rather saccharine story that would be an appalling narrative cliché if it weren’t the truth. But James Napier Robertson is too good a director to allow the sentiment of the plot to get in the way of one of the best films about mental health to come out in years, and he has too much respect for the protagonist of this story. The films substantial two hours are almost pure character development as we watch a person struggling with mental illness, not from the point of view of a safe, sane society, but from the perspective of Genesis Potini who can’t reconcile his efforts to fit into a meaningless world with societies extreme judgments of his behaviours, when they are allowing so many other travesties that fit into the realm of ‘healthy’. Despite this point of view, the film is never tempted to get preachy or fall into “who of us is really mad?” banality, primarily because Genesis never makes that judgement call himself, preferring to find a way to accommodate his unique perspective into a life he can bear to live.
Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis in another career defining role) lives in a care facility for the mentally ill, but he is one of those who fall into the category of borderline rehabilitation if he remains on his meds and takes up with a family member, the subtext being they will be willing to look after him. We can tell Genesis has been difficult in his past because of the reluctance of everyone who ever cared anything for him to be willing to take on that role. Care falls on the shoulders of an older brother, Ariki (newcomer Wayne Hapi) who also happens to be a part of a Maori gang, and Genesis joins the household as Ariki’s son is turning fifteen. This son is coming of age, and about to be ‘made’ by the gang, a process that includes a series of demeaning humiliations such as severe beatings and being pissed on. Mana (James Rolleston) is frightened and trying to find his own place in the world as a man, wanting to be all that his father hopes but also wanting to choose his own path. He and Genesis form an unlikely bond that steps outside the boundaries set by Ariki, who has very clear definitions of manhood and what it takes to survive.
Genesis connects to society and to the hearts of others through chess, a game at which he was once a grand master, and it is when he joins a group filled with local lost youths that he finds a reason to begin the (for him) arduous process of managing his self-care.
Manhood, maturity and survival are key themes of The Dark Horse, as it’s plot revolves more around the coming of age of Mana from the perspective of Genesis, who is himself fighting for his own transition into adulthood. This rescues the film from being a tired coming of age film or a bio-pic and keeps its eye firmly planted on the more contemporary issue of what defines masculinity and how the structures that support us often suffocate us. For this reason many comparisons have been made to the almost exactly twenty years old Once Were Warriors, were Curtis’ screen brother plays a gang member who is made in order to escape his dangerous father and destructive family, and Curtis’ character is seen as ‘a bit soft’. It is the placement of Curtis as outsider that forces this association, as it is impossible to forget the youthful Curtis as Bully and his brother Nig when we stare into the deeply sad angry eyes of Ariki all these years later, for whom the gang, with all its cruelty is the only true family and the only route to survival. Rather than anchor Maori culture perpetually on the outside, as the impoverished violent underdog, the connection references a sophisticated transformation in the community that still struggles with a sense of alienation, but this new generation of middle-aged adults can handle their problems with more power at the coal face of daily life. Once Were Warriors revolved around the recognition of pride in culture as the key to dignity and respect and The Dark Horse picks up this baton with more refinement and an awareness that its white audience are better educated. The Dark Horse has the ominous power of Once Were Warriors hanging over it, without the need for showy violence, rather here it is transferred to the Maori themselves as powerful, beautiful and elegantly terrifying people.
This mood settling over The Dark Horse allows the feel good nature of the narrative to shine through like warm rays piercing dark clouds. In a world this bleak everything even slightly good looks like a miracle. Robertson reveals the ‘happy ending’ as an event to be fought for, hard-won, all the more potent for the depths of the suffering on the journey to get there. Happy endings aren’t cultural drugs we take to avoid life, they are small triumphs that happen after great struggles. The Dark Horse reverses expectations within all the genres it deals with and is a triumph of a film that fully emphasises the need for cross cultural arts.