Peter Malone MSC 16 October 2020

Initially a portrait of New Zealand gangs, Savage is also a social commentary. It is grim and often brutal, but there is some humanity.

SAVAGE. New Zealand, 2019. Starring Jake Ryan, John Tui, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Seth Flynn, Haan'z Fa'avae- Jackson, James Matamua, Jack William Parker, Alex Raivaru, Olly Presling, Lotima Pomes.Directed by Sam Kelly. 99 minutes, Colour. Rated MA (Strong themes, violence and frequent coarse language).

It is. It is grim. It is often brutal.

Initially, this is a portrait of New Zealand gangs, in the setting of 1989. For the first 15 minutes the audience is immersed in the group, the details of its behaviour, attitudes, spirit. The intention of the director would seem to be to show the gangs, no holds barred, four-letter-word-spattered, but asking us, the audience, to stay with this impact because there is much more, more background, more explanations, more challenges . . .

The 1989 events introduce us to gang called Savages. The enforcer in the group is Damage, a tattooed mask on his face, big, burly, enforcing. There is a particularly harsh sequence where he punishes one of the members with an axe. Along with Damage is his close friend and gang leader, Moses, one of the many Maori men in the gang. These are characters that most audiences have never experienced except through the media, frightening characters. Damage is played by Melbourne actor, Jake Ryan. Moses is played by John Tui.

It is something of a relief when, after the 15 minutes of brutality, the audience is taken back to 1965. Damage is actually Danny, a young boy in a large family, living on the edge of town. The children, boys and girls, play, come in to meals – while their mother spends a lot of the time hanging clothes on the line, cooking the meals, with not enough food to go round, Danny offering her some of his. Their father comes home, a silent and sullen man, prone to violent outbursts.

It quickly becomes clear that the screenplay is going to develop the theme of how Danny became Damage, the ugliness and severity of domestic violence. When Danny steals some food for the family and he is caught, the family letting him go, the police take him to a juvenile hall. And, this hall has quite a number of young ‘offenders’, many Maori. Danny shares a room with one of them, Moses, a young lad with energy and initiative. The experience in the juvenile hall is as might be expected, severe disciplinarians, humiliation and beatings, a seemingly benign counsellor who initiates sexual advances (though these scenes quickly fade and there is no reference to them later). The two boys decide to escape.

With the 1965 sequences, it is clear that this film is not just a savage presentation of the gangs, but a social commentary.

And this is the case when the screenplay moves to 1972, the two teenagers, Danny and Moses, bonding, drifting, links with the gangs, and the dramatisation of the motivations – that these young men need to bond, that they need to have a substitute family, that they need to feel that someone is backing them up. The emphasis is not so much on gang aggression towards outsiders but strong fighting for turf, for the formation of gangs, forming the Savages, trying to find one’s place in this marginalised world. Complications arise for the two young men, especially with another gang, Danny confronting his brother Liam, appreciating his brother, then choosing gang over brother.

Which brings the audience back to 1989. Is Damage the same Danny as of the past? Is he in any position to understand himself and what has happened to him? And what of the memories of his father’s brutality, the suffering of his mother? Damage is also challenged by a young man, eager to become part of the gang, aping the older men, but attracted to a young woman and wanting to leave with her.

It is fair to say that there is some humanity at the end of the film. And quite some pathos. The screenplay achieves this, especially in the final four minutes, where there is no verbal dialogue, emotion communicated by body language, by eye contact, by long silent takes. This is such a contrast with what has gone before that it makes the ending quietly moving and hopeful.

Released 20 October