Runner Up

Once Were Warriors
(New Zealand, 1994)

One of my acknowledged tendencies as a film critic is to highly rate movies with darker subject matter. This isn't because I enjoy watching grim motion pictures, but because the emotional response to such a film is so much more genuine and heartfelt. The movies I remember are usually those that disturb. Such is the case with the 1994 drama, Once Were Warriors, one of the most visceral movies ever committed to celluloid about spousal abuse and its effects on a family. The movie is potent and very, very difficult to sit through. I know more than one person who was unable to watch the entire movie. This is far from the most violent film I have ever seen, but the violence is powerful because it occurs between real characters, not caricatures. And, in addition to dealing with spousal abuse on a personal level, Once Were Warriors asks us to confront the responsibility of society. You may find watching this movie to be an uncomfortable experience, but it is one you will never forget.

Plot Summary (Spoilers Possible):
The movie takes place in an urbanized area of south Auckland, where Beth and Jake Heke (Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison) live in a small house with four of their five children. The fifth, Nig (Julian Arahanga), has moved out to join a local gang. At first glance, Beth and Jake seem to have a solid marriage. They gripe at each other, but all seems pretty tranquil, and there are moments of genuine affection. But when Jake is drunk (which is frequently), his temper is easily ignited, and when one of Beth's barbs pushes him too far, the bloody and violent results are terrible to behold. Beth and Jake's troubles have a domino effect on their children. Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) has been arrested, and when neither of his parents appear at his court hearing, he is sentenced to enter social welfare custody. Meanwhile, Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), the Heke's thirteen-year old daughter, is having as much difficulty coping with her own sexuality as with the brutal chaos of her home life.

Once Were Warriors is centered upon the touchy yet timely topic of domestic violence. It is not, however, merely another "domestic violence motion picture." With its complex cultural backdrop and its stark view of this societal cancer, Once Were Warriors attains a level where it is equally painful and potent. The critical themes of this movie are universal, even though there is a great deal of background that only a New Zealander (or a student of that country's history) can appreciate. Nevertheless, the key issue -- the brutal cycle of violence and denial within a family -- is brought to the fore in a manner that necessitates no special awareness. Once Were Warriors works, to some degree, on three levels: the visceral, the emotional, and the intellectual, and it is the amalgamation of these that makes this a memorable film.

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