Wellington, 1989. Damage (Jake Ryan) is the brutal enforcer of one of the region’s most notorious gangs – but he wasn’t always. He once was Danny, a scared young boy abandoned by his family and failed by the government. Living in a state home for young boys, he befriends Moses (John Tui) and the two become inseparable over the next three decades as they grow from powerless children to become violent gangsters.
New Zealand isn’t just the scenic walks and happy hobbits it markets itself as; there are many excellent NZ films dealing with the dark, violent side of life in Aotearoa to prove it. Classics such as Once Were Warriors and Mahana have dared to bring institutional poverty, domestic violence, and gang life to the big screen while still telling compelling, character-driven stories.
It’s clear that Savage is trying to do the same, but it falls short of a very high mark.
Sam Kelly directs and writes on his feature film debut, showing mature storytelling that bodes well for his future. Telling a story across multiple stages in an individual’s life isn’t easy, but Kelly manages reasonably well. We could have used more flash-backs and forwards to keep the momentum of each story thread going; Damage’s origin story took away from the urgency of the main narrative, which ultimately robbed the climax of much of its emotional weight.
A bigger flaw in the narrative of Savage, however, is its lack of female perspective. The film tries to give a voice to people mariginalised by society. This idea falls back on itself when we have so few female characters to connect with. A promising early narrative thread with a new woman in town trying to engage sexually with Damage (a tragic and powerful scene) is left by the wayside and not touched upon for the rest of the film. We also fail to learn about his mother, who remains on the periphery of Damage’s life but only ever seems to be talked about, rather than being an active participant in the story.
Extending the narrative to incorporate these perspectives would have given Savage a much-needed counterpoint to the violence and testosterone. Indeed, giving the film an additional ten minutes of runtime could have helped to build out these side plots more effectively.
One of Kelly’s strengths is his work behind the camera. Savage brings a wonderful sense of balance to both the rugged beauty of NZ’s natural landscape and the squalid decay of its towns and houses. It perfectly encapsulates how a neglectful state contributed to the rise of gangs and criminal violence, how nurture influences anti-social behaviour more than nature. Savage is beautiful, in a rough, meth-y biker kinda way.
Jake Ryan is solid but not magnetic as the eldest incarnation of the protagonist. It was a bold decision casting an Aussie in the lead role of NZ crime movie, but his gruffness means he passes under the radar without easy detection. John Tui is also good without excelling as the eldest version of Moses.
Meanwhile, the supporting cast are all unremarkable. A lot of this can come down to the dearth of fleshed-out supporting characters in the film, but this is also one of Savage’s weaknesses; no performance stands out as truly memorable, as a defining moment here to make a mark on the history of NZ film.
Comparisons with NZ’s classic crime dramas are inevitable. It may not be fair, especially when something like Once Were Warriors is so entrenched in the film industry’s psyche, but Savage just doesn’t have the depth of compelling characters and breadth of personal perspectives to make it an equal.