Critical responses are seldom predictable, unless you’re talking about those proindustry blurbs that you see splashed across film ads (you know, the ones that say everything is “One of the Year’s 10 Best”).
But when a critic goes way off the mark, you tend to notice. Such is the case with someone named Bill Jones, who reviews films for The Phoenix Gazette.
It may not seem fair to begin a positive review of a film by reciting words from the lone reviewer who has passionately panned it, and maybe it isn’t. Not to the film nor to the reviewer.
But when someone rips a film the way Jones did “Once Were Warriors,” a stunning New Zealand study of domestic violence, he deserves to be called on it.
Here is his lead: “They don’t make movies more humorless, moronic, self-indulgent or execrable than ‘Once Were Warriors.”’
And it goes down from there. Jones ends up calling the movie a “pile of wasted celluloid.”
Did we see the same film? Evidently not.
The film I saw is a little effort made for $1.4 million by director Lee Tamahori. It debuted at Cannes in 1994 and has played since then in some 34 countries to almost universal acclaim. The lead actress, Rena Owen, was named Best Actress at the Montreal Film Festival.
This much is true: “Once Were Warriors” is a hard movie to watch. It follows the harsh life of one Maori family as it stumbles through the enduring cycle of domestic violence. And the story it tells is universal: Aside from its virtual “Road Warrior” references, “Once Were Warriors” could take place in Spokane, Seattle, New York or even Phoenix.
Beth Heke (Owen) is married to Jake, a brutishly charming lout who, as the film opens, can’t understand why Beth isn’t as ecstatic as he is that he’s lost his job. They’ll make almost as much money on the dole, he says, and he’ll have a lot more free time. To drink, as it turns out.
Reviewer Jones takes director Tamahori to task for, as he writes, being “so enamored with the posturing of his latter-day warriors, and with choreographing their bloody confrontations, that he fails to explain how everyone got so pugnacious in the first place.”
But everything you need to know is on the screen. Jones, clearly, is ignoring the obvious. Just take a look around and it becomes painfully clear how much poverty and cultural displacement so often lead to hopelessness and frustration. How they lead to anger, and how that anger is so often self-directed. And when the pain of that anger gets too great, the person feeling it explodes all over the ones he or she otherwise professes to love.
That’s what happens in “Once Were Warriors.” Beth routinely berates Jake; he responds by routinely beating her and Tamahori spares us nothing in revealing this. Beth, who plays her part in the sad saga by doing and saying exactly what she knows will instigate Jake’s anger, gets knocked around something awful. And the prosthetic marks on her face show fully well the awful effects of such violence.
But even worse are the effects of such abuse on the couple’s children. None of them are fooled by those moments when their parents engage in drunken romance, crooning to each other country-and-western fashion. They know what will happen before too long.
The oldest (Julian “Sonny” Arahanga), who becomes a tattooed criminal wannabe in response to his father’s boorish behavior, takes off on his own. His little brother, Boogie (Taungaoroa Emile) seems destined to follow when he is sent to reform school.
Only their gentle sister, Grace (Mamaengaoroa Kerr-Bell), seems destined enough to survive with dignity. Catching her dreams in a cheap paper notebook, Grace is the naive soul who so often in art survives through the sheer force of her goodness. In real life, though, fate sometimes saves its worst horrors for the innocent among us.
“Once Were Warriors,” clearly, is not for the faint-hearted. But just as clearly, it does offer hope. It does demonstrate what powers are contained in the will to survive, both by a woman who finally decides to exit an abusive relationship and by a boy who adopts the role of his ancestral warriors to gain their power, not for violence but for the strength to do and be good.
Both as a film and as a moving statement about a global social problem, “Once Were Warriors” is about as far from “wasted celluloid” as a movie can get.
A special benefit showing of “Once Were Warriors” will be held at 7:15 p.m. Wednesday at the Magic Lantern Cinemas. Tickets are $10 ($20 patron tickets will include a post-screening champagne and dessert buffet at Europa Pizzeria). Advance tickets are available at the Magic Lantern, the YWCA and Gregg Jones & Assoc. All proceeds go to the Spokane YWCA Domestic Violence Shelter.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “Once Were Warriors” *** 1/2 Location: Magic Lantern Cinemas Credits: Directed by Lee Tamahori from a script by Riwia Brown (based on the novel by Alan Duff), starring Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison, Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell, Julian “Sonny” Arahanga, Taungaroa Emile. Running time: 1:48 Rating: R