By: Daniel Reynolds
In conversation last weekend, a friend and I turned to discussing the moves coming out over the next week or so. He mentioned an interest in The Measure of a Man, a French film with an award-winning performance by Vincent Lindon. I seconded the notion, but added that I’d heard great things about The Dark Horse, a small film from New Zealand. My friend stiffened and was careful with his words. Sure, it’ll be good for what it is, he demurred. It was not a dismissal per se, but more of an acknowledgement that there would be nothing surprising about the film. Having now seen The Dark Horse, I understand the sentiment. There’s a lot in here we’ve seen before, and yet there is also a special film.
It’s easy to form a preconceived notion about The Dark Horse before it even begins. The film is based on a true story. It centres on Genesis Potini, a mentally ill chess prodigy. It involves a rag-tag group of underprivileged kids and a national tournament. There’s also a dark side to the film featuring a scary Maori biker gang with hints of clash between cultures. Pick your movie cliche: a teacher learning more about himself as he teaches his students, an underdog sports story, a mental illness reclamation project. It’s all there and yet, The Dark Horse never quite feels rote. The film instead uses nimble direction, vibrant writing, and, most significantly, its strong central performance, to develop its ideas and then push off from the things we feel we already know into something new.
James Napier Robertson, the film’s semi-novice writer/director, has a lot of rich material to work with here. He anchors his story on Genesis (Cliff Curtis, more on him in a bit), the most unreliable of moorings. The large man, draped in thick sweaters, is mentally unstable, prone to bouts of anxiety — triggered by stress — that push him in a manic direction. The film opens with Genesis wandering into oncoming traffic in the pouring rain while talking to himself. We understand the diagnosis and danger immediately. Flashing ahead, Genesis is released from a mental hospital into the reluctant care of his brother Ariki (the equally hulking Wayne Hapi). He finds himself completely adrift save for two sureties, one an old comfort and the other quickly discovered: he is awesome at chess, and his nephew, Ariki’s son Mana (James Rolleston), is going down the wrong path. For a man who barely has a grip on himself, a purpose emerges.
The film moves from the grimy home of Ariki and his biker gang, to the quiet side streets of rural New Zealand and then the garage of friend Noble (Kirk Torrance) and his “chess” club, the Eastern Knights. I put chess in quotes there because, as Noble remarks early on, the club is really just a way to give the kids something to do and keep them out of trouble. As The Dark Horse makes clear, these Maori youth are, in their own ways, just as adrift as Genesis. A small life on the margins of society is all that is promised them; the only alternative appears to be joining a violent gang similar to Ariki’s. Chess is not exactly something they understand, but it gives Genesis a direction, and his passion for the game — which always seems just on the edge of becoming unhinged — is inspiring. The children in the club, varying in age from around 10 to upwards of 17, delight in being part of something. The film captures this bounty of energy but doesn’t dwell on the circumstances that finds these kids in this run down garage day after day. And, in the periphery at first, Mana lurks, torn between the duty to his father and a burgeoning desire to not become like him. For all his mental instability, Genesis sees this divide and the film labours to capture the shifting moves of all these pieces towards its conclusion. The question becomes whether Genesis will be able to keep himself together long enough to see it through.
None of it works without Cliff Curtis as Genesis. He’s an actor you’ve seen a million times before, often playing Arab or Spanish characters, always in support or villainous roles. He rarely gets to lead — which says something about the paucity of roles even charismatic actors of colour such as Curtis can find. It’s clear, not just because of his executive producer credit, that Curtis takes a certain pride in the story and the character. His Genesis rambles in high pitch, but also lows with a powerful centre of gravity. Curtis brings a fantastic energy and presence to the role, believably grappling with the troubling aspects of Genesis in a performance that goes beyond mere makeup, haircut and stunts. He is never not watchable in the film. It’s his pull that brings the triangle of central conflicts — between Hapi’s Ariki and with Rolleston’s Mana — into stark relief. The film allows the chess story, filled with laughing kids and energy to play out in the foreground, while building a simmering tension between these three. How it plays out is not surprising, but it is effective and inescapably moving.
The reticence of my friend to embrace The Dark Horse makes sense in retrospect. It’s a film that’s unlikely to be heard of much outside of New Zealand — where it’s already being called one of the finest films the country has ever produced. Its description is straight forward and its pay off, between teacher and students, two damaged brothers, and a father and son, is telegraphed from the outset. What works is how Robertson uses all of these elements in different combinations to bring us to that final emotional checkmate. We know it’s inevitable but, as in the film, the win still comes as something of a surprise. Yes, The Dark Horse is what it is; but what it is feels like a victory.