"Once Were Warriors" is the most horrifying film in recent memory, an uncompromising indictment of domestic abuse told as the story of a poverty-ridden Maori family that is struggling under the fist of its brutal patriarch.
Jake Heke (Temuera Morrison) rules his wife and five children with a closed hand, which is also how he deals with any sort of disagreement - especially when he's drunk. His wife Beth (Rena Owen) puts up with his brutality, his cheating, his broken promises - even his raping her. But her loyalty and love for Jake will eventually grow thin, especially as she comes to realize just how seriously her own children are at risk.
Jake's rage is understandable to some degree. As the title suggests, the Maori people were once warriors, but there is no outlet for that fearsome heritage in modern-day New Zealand. And as the film ingratiates the audience into the Heke clan, it's easy to see how charismatic and winning this hulking, tattooed fellow is. And how easily Beth is seduced by him.
But in every situation, no matter how benign, there is an element of queasy suspense, the feeling that it won't take much to push Jake's buttons and begin another tirade. Beth's attempts to filter all of this are at first pitiable. In fact, she doesn't really come to her senses until she realizes her two oldest sons may already be irreversibly corrupted by Jake's violent example (one goes to a juvenile detention home, the other joins a gang). The question becomes, can she save her three youngest children?
All of this is very specific to a Maori ghetto in an anonymous New Zealand setting, with ethnic pride playing a big part in the story. But there is no question as to the universality of the subject and its treatment.
Screenwriter Riwia Brown (basing the script on a novel by Alan Duff) has provided some strong stuff (though some of it is predictably by the numbers), but it is director Lee Tamahori's stark presentation of the material that gives the film its power. There are scenes here that are very difficult to watch - in particular a moment that comes about a third into the film, as Beth takes a pounding from Jake during one of his regular late-night parties, and a rape later in the film. The violence is never softened and the terror is genuine.
Heartbreaking, frustrating, an observation of domestic violence and a tribute to the wives who ultimately refuse to remain victims, in the end "Once Were Warriors" demonstrates that women are the real warriors.
"Once Were Warriors" is rated R for violence, sex, nudity, profanity, vulgarity, drugs.