Complexity and hurt is central to James Napier Robertson’s emotionally charged film The Dark Horse. All the characters are fighting a battle inside and outside of themselves. They are trying to rescue themselves from inner hurt whilst attempting to prove to everyone that nothing is quite as bad as it seems.
Through the looking glass we meet Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), a former chess champion who is released from a mental institution provided a family member look after him; this family member comes in the form of Ariki, Genesis estranged gang member brother. Some rather stiff armed welcomes by other gang members await.
Ariki’s son Mana (James Rolleston) takes an initial dislike in Genesis but warms up to him over time.
On many occasions humour is well used to break some heavy emotional moments up. When Genesis first walks into the chess club for displaced Youth, everyone is giving themselves nicknames. Once a few small laughs got going, it turned into a wave of hysteria. On another occasion Mana is arguing with his uncle. “You shouldn’t be looking through other people’s stuff,” Genesis says. “You shouldn’t be sleeping in other people’s beds” Mana snaps back.
Basics are well covered. Dark lighting always surrounds every gang member or person inside Ariki’s house. There is just an uneasy feeling being near there. Cinematographer Denson Baker’s captures every unwelcome mood with ease. Warm music radiates every time chess is being played; just enabling youngsters from hard backgrounds to temporarily escape hard times by playing a simple game to build intelligence builds wanders.
You are able to tell the characters are hurting a lot. That inner battle is remaining true to themselves but as is often the case, compromise is king. Mana wants to join the chess club on their trip to the chess tournament in Auckland, sneaking out from gang headquarters to join in on chess practice. For much of it Genesis and Mana get away with living secret lives; Genesis is sleeping at the monument.
The film would have ended on a higher note had the chess tournament been at a later stage. Returning to Gisborne afterwards left an empty feeling of unresolved tensions which would skewer out of control. How low can things sink? Thankfully, Cliff Curtis wonderful performance never slides into obscurity; always remaining true to the character. It was a performance which required more than just putting on extra weight and donning a silly hairstyle and Curtis nailed it.
So who is most memorable in the cast? Hard to say. Miriama McDowell’s Sandy is such a sweetheart, full of love and care as is Kirk Torrance. James Rolleston is a magnet. Every line he delivers, every tear he sheds, there is so much intense passion. I’d recommend looking at Wayne Hapi; this man knows his character is troubled and had no problem ensuring that he remains deeply torn.
Sometimes life becomes complicated when new opportunities arise. The Dark Horse shows that hope does exist if you know where to look. Sometimes it is knocking in the strangest areas.