In Once Were Warriors, there’s a powerful line Ruth (Rena Owen) – the matriarch of a dysfunctional family – says to her abusive, alcoholic husband. Calmly recognising Jake Heke (Temuera Morrison) will never change his violent ways, she finds the courage to stand up to him. ‘You’re still a slave… To your fist, to the drink, to yourself’. It’s one of the film’s many powerful exchanges, but this particular moment offers a profound summary of the film’s study of domestic abuse. Although both herself and her five children have been held captive to his rages, it is Jake who is the true prisoner. Twenty-five years after the movie’s release, such insight into familial abuse and the effects of male aggression are as brilliant and uncompromising as they were upon release. There is no doubting that Lee Tamahori’s film proudly maintains its title as one of New Zealand’s greatest.
Surpassing Jurassic Park at the box office, the 1994 adaptation of Alan Duff’s novel offers a detailed study into the lives of an urban Māori community. The working-class family are struggling to make ends meet, their home in an Auckland slum a hostile place filled with resentment because of it. Jake’s redundancy immediately heightens said tensions and we are soon introduced to his dangerously temperamental nature. Eldest son Nig (Julian Arahanga) chooses to disassociate himself entirely, joining a local gang in a protest of hatred towards his father. Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell in a phenomenal first and only acting role), the intellectual and caring daughter who provides a mother figure for the two youngest kids, is the family’s support base but suffers the worst. Middle child Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) is a delinquent, soon sent to an institute for young offenders after his parent’s fail to attend his trial hearing. Although Ruth desperately wants to care and provide an honest life for her children, Jake’s lifestyle of drink, parties and brutal violence overwhelms her ability to be a good mother. It’s a toxic environment fuelled by misogyny, women unable to progress from their submissive roles and men moulded into brutes.
Many viewers will find Tamahori’s film difficult to endure, the scenes of physical violence towards Ruth both stomach-churning and deeply upsetting. But what makes the film so brilliant is the integrity with which both director and scriptwriter Riwia Brown present the character’s relationships and daily struggles. There is no sugarcoating Jake’s dreadfulness and one particular attack on Ruth (featured above) is painstaking, the camera refusing to shroud from each punch. But its a realistic exploration of the nature of abusive men. It doesn’t shy away from how women are subjected to physical and emotional violence, and for this reason, it proudly sits on a pedestal above sensationalised and romanticised narrative offerings from Hollywood. Although we’re not spared any relief from the horrors of the Heke family’s life, the unforgiving attitude of the film shouldn’t be one to deter you from watching this masterpiece.
Decades since its release, it is still as culturally and socially relevant today. Considering the nature of its topic, this is a feat to be proud. It is undeniably rare films exploring spousal abuse are so critically acclaimed and positively received, but it is because Once Were Warriors offers so much more than just gratuitous violence. It is an exploration of both misogyny and cultural prejudice, and the film’s violence is necessary for interrogating both themes. As Ruth’s desires to return to her native Māori home with her children become a critical necessity – a literal matter of life or death – the film solidifies itself as unforgettable. Tamahori’s refusal to provide us with any relief in the film’s closing moments simultaneously makes this film a tough watch but all the more worth it because of it.
Dir: Lee Tamahori
Scr: Riwia Brown
Cast: Rena Owen, Temuera Morrison, Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell, Julian Arahanga, Cliff Curtis
Prd: Robin Scholes
DOP: Stuart Dryburgh
Music: Murray Grindlay, Murray McNabb
Country: New Zealand
Runtime: 104 mins
Once Were Warriors is available on Blu-ray now.