Sunday, August 14, 2016

Now on Amazon Prime: The Dark Horse (2016)

The Dark Horse movie poster
The Dark Horse (2016) - Written and Directed by James Napier Robertson; Starring Cliff Curtis, James Rolleston, Kirk Torrance.

By Kenny Howell

It's interesting to see how some movie tropes look through a different cultural lens.

The New Zealand film The Dark Horse is definitely that in a couple of ways. It's main character, a great chess mind in Genesis Potini, is a man battling mental illness, which has been seen a hundred times before, especially when an actor is angling for an Oscar.

It also is a Rocky-esque sports film in a way, as our lead character leads a group of underprivileged youngsters to a major chess competition, which leads to the big climax of the film. Not to mention a teacher leading inner city students. Also add, a family drama and a portrait of gang life among an impoverished population.

Sometimes when trying to be all those things at once, a film will seem muddle or like it is trying to do too much. But Writer-Director James Napier Robertson beautifully weaves all these elements, mostly because they are so important to the story. Plus he has Cliff Curtis.



Curtis is Genesis, a man who breaks when stress becomes too much, talking to himself and losing control. He was raised in an impoverished part of New Zealand, which is strife with gangs and not much hope for the people involved. His brother is an important gang leader, and his nephew, which shows great promise, is reluctantly under his control.

Genesis decides he wants to join a youth chess league in his town, where he will teach some of the local kids the game he has loved for so many years. Under his wing, they will prepare for a youth championship in Auckland. Standing in their way is Genesis himself, who needs to try to keep under control to give the kids stability, as well as the home lives of the kids which create all kinds of challenges.

On paper, The Dark Horse sounds typical, but it is so much more. Robertson is part of the reason for that, but the real reason is Curtis. Since his breakthrough in another New Zealand film, Once Were Warriors, back in 1994, he has been a reliable character actor in films like Training Day, Blow, Three Kings and The Insider, but The Dark Horse is his time to shine. His Genesis never once drifts into caricature, and Curtis wears all of Genesis' troubles on his face. You can see his entire struggle in small moments, and it really is one of the best performances of the year. The Dark Horse as a whole earns that distinction as well, being one of the better films to make its way to theaters so far in 2016.

Rating: ***1/2

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