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, ultimately 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 as he walks down the middle of the street, obstructing traffic inhabit and inhabiting a world seemingly within his own mind, as he pays little attention 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 (making little sense), he also displays a remarkable comprehension of memory and strategy when he encounters a used chess set. He rearranges the pieces to enact a flawless match-up. His mystique is quietly interrupted when the film cuts to him as a healthily curious child, learning chess for the first time from his older brother. These crucial opening 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 his brother, we quickly meet his son Mana, a confrontational teenager who imposes a false sense of ruggedness to appease the gang that both he and his father have attached themselves to. The gang’s leader, a rotund beast of man, constantly tests the young man’s forbearance through harsh physical abuse. Genesis, on the other hand, sees through his nephew’s “tough-guy” façade, and soon finds himself confronted with a moral conundrum, once it’s implied that his brother may be turning a blind eye to the abuse inflicted on Mana. The scars run deep between the three family member, and while Ariki and Mana seem to be spiraling further into their troubles, Genesis finds an inspired solution when he offers to coach a local community of kids to play chess.
While it bares the seemingly unremarkable trappings of a run-of-the-mill underdog film, The Dark Horse seems more interested in cultural details that supply this movie it’s cultural identity. Genesis presents his young, hyperactive team with Māori inspired chess pieces. Immediately the kids are taken by the neat designs of the the pieces. Once Genesis gives each of them a piece to look after, however, he begins to inspire their sense of purpose. The director, James Napier Robertson, places strong emphasis on Māori culture. He evokes it through strong images — members of the chess team (who are of Māori origin) perform a Haka, an intense expression of cultural pride. Yet interrupting the moment is a drearier, more somber admission of cultural shame. Mana, the nephew, has committed his first crime, a twisted rite of passage, and sits in the corner writhing in guilt.
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 brutally riveting, particularly when Genesis comes at odds with his brother, and the need to “save” his nephew eventuates into something more complicatedly dramatic. This culminates to an emotionally moody and raw 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 the film’s damaged souls.
It should go without saying that Cliff Curtis is a madcap powerhouse, managing to portray his character with understated dignity and uninhibited wildness. He manages to manipulate every tick and idiosyncratic gesture characterizing Genesis from something cutesy and likable, to unstable and dangerous. His talent comes as no surprise, Curtis is 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 an astronautic doctor and scientist, he’s not only gregarious and reliable, but graciously diverse.
Minus the unpolished and overly-raw style (rife with flagrantly irritating jump cuts and the use of a hand-held camera, muzzling the actors’ physical subtleties), The Dark Horse is singular and crisp. James Napier Robertson never allows his film to devolve into another cliched “ghetto” success story or make the film into a shrine to Genesis — whose accomplishments and failures came in equal parts. 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.