The Dark Horse seems to be two films; one is a moving — if an ostensibly familiar — underdog tale that tells the true story of a team of impoverished kids who participate in a national chess tournament, and the other is a chilling study on criminal subculture and mental health. Intertwining these subjects is the film’s case study, Genesis Potini (played by the spectacular Cliff Curtis), a speed chess protégé who grew up suffering from mental health issues, an unnamed condition which throws him into fits of mood swings, leaving him homeless. After a short stint in a mental hospital, Genesis is released under the custody of his brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi) and his son Mana (James Rolleston). Both of whom host a detritus pack of leather clad, chain smoking criminals, whose tight grasp on the father and son slowly destroys any sense of autonomy in their lives.
The opening shot follows Genesis walking in the middle of the street, obstructing traffic and seemingly inhabiting his own mind as he pays little heed to the world around him. Curtis’ performance in these moments feel reminiscent of Geoffrey Rush in 1996’s Shine (dir. Scott Hicks), as he prattles endlessly to little substance, he also displays a remarkable comprehension of memory and strategy when he encounters a used chess set and rearranges the pieces to enact a flawless match-up. The scene upthrusts the mystique of the character when we see him as a healthily curious child, learning chess for the first time from his brother. These crucial moments help establish the three biggest challenges in Genesis’ life: chess, his mental illness and his brother, Ariki.
As we follow Genesis into the home of Ariki, we quickly meet his son Mana, who is confrontational and imposes a false sense of ruggedness, perhaps to appease the gang he’s to be inaugurated into. A sensible conclusion as the gang’s leader, a rotund beast of man, constantly tests the young man’s forbearance through harsh physical abuse. Genesis sees through his nephew’s “tough-guy” façade, but is confronted with a conundrum when it’s heavily implied that Ariki may be turning a blind eye to the abuse as a way to harden his son for when the day comes when he integrates into his world. The scars run deep between the three kin, and while Ariki and Mana seem to be spiralling further into their troubles, Genesis finds an inspired solution, when he offers to coach a local community of kids to play chess.
While the film bares the unremarkable trappings of a classic underdog film, The Dark Horse seems to be more interested in cultural details that make this film interesting to begin with. This is emphasized when Genesis presents his young, hyperactive team with Māori inspired chess pieces, attracting their attention. He gives each of them a chess piece, as if to inspire their sense of purpose. Director James Napier Robertson does an interesting job stressing culture and chess by portraying Genesis likening Māori mythology to elucidate a gaming strategy, while alluring his team at the same time. Robertson isn’t afraid to take it a step further either; we see the chess team, who are of Māori origin, perform a Haka, an intense expression of cultural pride. This is spliced with a dreary scene of Mana sitting alone, reaping the shame of a horrible crime he committed as part of his gang’s rite of passage. It’s a sad, multifaceted picture of the highs and lows of the impoverished New Zealand community.
Every familiar beat in the film is almost a welcomed sight; for every cliché or trope this film possesses, we’re being reminded every culture has a story to tell and sometimes they’re not much different than ours. However, The Dark Horse can also be unflinchingly unpredictable as well, particularly when Genesis finds himself at odds with his brother, and the need to “save” his nephew becomes more and more desperate. This culminates to an incredible climactic sequence of which I will spare the details, but contain crucial moments of heartrending patience, lit only by a fierce firelight and anchored by damaged souls. The film doesn’t hold back.
It should go without saying that Cliff Curtis is a madcap powerhouse, managing to portray his character with understated dignity and scene-stealing distastefulness. He manages to manipulate every tick and idiosyncratic gesture that characterizes Genesis from being endearing to something frighteningly unpleasant. This kind of talent is no surprise, Curtis happens to be one of the most underrated character actors of the last decade with performances ranging from Training Day, where he played a Sureño gangster, to Sunshine where he plays an astronautic doctor and scientist. No doubt he gives a performance that will go down as one of the year’s best and for himself, a role of a lifetime.
The entire cast is also worth noting. Wayne Hapi give a tragically withdrawn and regretful performance as Genesis’ brother, James Rolleston is a talented young actor who surprisingly offers a controlled nuance as his tragic nephew and of course the chess team, who are not only convincing in their enthusiasm but individually unique and funny.
Is The Dark Horse a perfect film? Probably not. Sometimes there are flagrantly irritating jump cuts and the use of a hand-held camera muzzles its actors’ physical subtleties. These however, are insignificant against what makes The Dark Horse a great film; the key details that appreciate culture are emphasized, and it’s brutally honest in its depiction of mental illness and impoverished society. James Napier Robertson never allows his film to devolve into another ghetto success story or turn the film into a cinematic shrine to Genesis, whose true life story is inspiring. It’s correct to assume that just because a true story is great doesn’t mean it’ll make for a great film, but The Dark Horse understands that it requires more than simple narrative tricks and interesting factoids to make its “true story” stand out as a great film.