“Toxic masculinity” is a term that has been thrown around recently, and is probably overused, like many buzzwords. However, the film Once Were Warriors certainly deals with the consequences of a family patriarch’s toxic masculinity for the other members of his family. When the film was unleashed on the filmgoing public it sent shockwaves throughout the world, but it was in New Zealand that it had a profound impact upon the culture it depicted, that of Maori population. They saw themselves on screen (which was rare enough), but also for men especially they saw what they had inside of them and what they could become.
The film concerns a married couple, Jake (Temiera Morrison) and Beth (Rena Owen), who have been married for years. However, the marriage is struggling along due to his alcoholism and violent outbursts. They have children together, but Jake has just lost his job so his late-night parties and violence are increasing. Beth is trying to keep the family together but finding it more difficult day by day, and the kids are getting into trouble too. She needs to decide what to do—she does love Jake, despite being the victim of the most harrowing domestic abuse you can imagine. His violent outbursts are not just limited to his family—he also gets in fights at the local bar to show how much of a man he supposedly is.
Lee Tamahori was the director, and is part Maori himself. It was his directorial debut after being the most noted director of commercials in his home country of New Zealand. He ended up in Hollywood soon after, and directed big action films like the Bond flick Die Another Day and the XXX without Vin Diesel, but he also wanted to make more films that were high on drama but with some action thrown in, like this and his initial Hollywood films, such as Mulholland Falls and The Edge. His most recent film is also set in New Zealand, also staring Morrison and titled The Patriarch (I sense a theme here), which hasn’t gained a UK distributor yet. Tamahori also features in Hollywood lore for being arrested, allegedly in full drag for soliciting an undercover cop for oral sex. The mugshot has never been released, sadly, and the charges were lessened to trespassing.
Once Were Warriors remains a deeply powerful film about a community, which even within New Zealand cinema is rarely shown on screen. There was some criticism that it showed the ugly side of urban Maori life, which is somewhat true (and Tamahori acknowledges that. However, it shows the consequences of living the way Jake does. There was a sequel five years later, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, which reunited some of the cast, but Tamahori didn’t see any redemption for the character of Jake so he declined the offer. The performances of Morrison and Owen are 100% believable. You see exactly why she stays with him and why she would still love him, it’s a testament to their abilities as actors that they can pull off such difficult roles. The film also has an extraordinary sound design in the scenes of extreme violence, which really throws you into the middle of the action on screen.
The disc includes a documentary that reunited the cast and crew 20 years after the film was made, and a more recent interview with Tamahori in which he discusses his career and the impact Once Were Warriors had on it (but sadly doesn’t talk about that arrest!)