In the turbulence of the 21st century, New Zealand is often seen as a beacon of hope – a peaceful, beautiful, idyll in the southern hemisphere offering the simple life. Maybe it’s because of that scenery, or all those Hobbit movies, but if you’re expecting any of those from Sam Kelly’s debut, Savage, let’s be clear. You won’t get that. This is the other side of the coin, because New Zealand is like any other country ….
Which means it has poverty, it has crime and a gang culture all of its own, and it’s through all those that Kelly takes us on this examination of one man’s search to find his true home. In the 1960s, the young Danny is part of an ever-expanding family, one with barely enough money to put food on the table, which prompts him to break into the local grocery store. Caught and sent to a juvenile detention centre, his experiences there stick with him for life. He also makes a friend in Moses and, as teenagers they form a gang known as the Savages, all made up of boys who’ve been cast out by their families and society as a whole. By the time the late 80s come along, Danny is now known as Damage and is the gang’s enforcer, the man Moses uses as muscle to sort out problems. There’s no mistaking him. The mask-like tattoo across his face bears the gang’s name.
The brutal opening moments – Damage (Jake Ryan) punishing a gang member for theft – spell out exactly what we can expect. Low, brooding lighting, grainy visuals, unrestrained violence – Damage’s weapon of choice is a claw hammer – all designed to take us into the heart of the gang culture and its uneasy relationship between its white and Maori members. In this case, the Savages are borne out of adversity, so loyalty is prized above everything but factions emerge, the cracks start to show and Moses (John Tui) is under threat. Kelly’s story was inspired by real street gang history and the authenticity shines through. But this isn’t just a gang story.
What runs through the film is the lingering “nature v nurture” question. Was Danny/Damage always going to be a monster or, if life had dealt him a better hand, would he have turned out differently? And how much is that tattoo across his face a disguise to conceal the real person underneath and protect him from the outside world that abused him in his earlier years? Kelly’s answer is apparent early on and it’s reinforced by the friendship forged by Danny/Damage and Moses in their teens and which continues into adulthood. It’s totally believable and one that gives the film real heart, especially in the moments with the two just having a beer together. But the director demonstrates equal power when it comes to the most critical moments of the film, setting dialogue aside and giving us either cold, stunned silences or music instead of words. They’re literally breath stopping
Danny/Damage’s search to find a true home reaches a conclusion that we can see coming from early on, but that doesn’t make his journey any less arresting. That’s down to Jake Ryan’s excellent performance in the lead role, as well as some well-judged support turns, especially Alex Raivaru as Moses’ rival to lead the Savages. The film is grounded in relationships, positive and negative but is always believable and, even if the final act doesn’t have the tension of the rest of the film, getting there is an engrossing experience with some flashes of true brilliance.
Drama, Thriller, Crime | Cert: 18 | Vertigo Releasing | 11 September 2020 | Dir. Sam Kelly | Jake Ryan, John Tui, Alex Raivaru, Seth Flynn.