The Dark Horse seems to be two films; one is a moving, overtly familiar underdog tale which tells the true story of a team of underprivileged kids who participate in a national chess tournament in New Zealand. The other is a chilling study on criminal subculture. Binding 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 delusion and hysteria, both which 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 and inhabiting a world seemingly in which he is the only participant. Curtis’ performance almost feels reminiscent of Geoffrey Rush in Shine (dir. Scott Hicks) as he prattles endlessly. But while in these ‘states’ Genesis also displays a remarkable comprehension of memory and strategy when he encounters an isolated chess set. He rearranges the pieces to enact a flawless match-up. The mystique of this crucial establishing moment is quietly interrupted when the film cuts to a young Genesis as a healthy, curious child learning chess for the first time from his older brother.
As we follow Genesis into the home of his brother in present day, we quickly meet his son Mana, a confrontational teenager who imposes a false sense of ruggedness to impress the gang that both he and his father are adopted into. The gang’s leader, a rotund beast of man, constantly tests the young man’s forbearance through physical abuse. Genesis, on the other hand, sees through his nephew’s “tough-guy” façade. But he soon finds himself confronted with a moral dilemma once it’s implied that his brother may be turning a blind eye to Mana’s abuse.
While The Dark Horse bares the seemingly unremarkable trappings of a run-of-the-mill underdog film, the script seems more interested in cultural details that supply this movie its cultural identity. Genesis presents his young, hyperactive team with Māori inspired chess pieces. Once Genesis gives each of them a piece to look after he begins to foster their sense of identity, not as tools but components of a whole. 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 coiled in guilt.
For every cliché The Dark Horse embraces, we’re reminded how every culture (other than our own) overcomes similar hurdles. Dark Horse can also be brutal and unpredictable, ultimately culminating to a fierce climax, a confrontation that plays like an emotional tug-of-war. Here Robertson expertly crafts silence, patience and firelight as raw dramatic tools. He grounds the moment in compassion and anchors it with damaged souls. It should go without saying that Cliff Curtis is a madcap powerhouse, managing to portray his character with understated dignity and wildness. He manages to manipulate every tick and idiosyncratic gesture characterizing Genesis. His ability to convert cutesy and likable into unstable and dangerous makes his well-studied and truculent performance absurdly watchable.
Minus the unpolished and fibrous complacency to familiar genre progenitors, The Dark Horse proves itself as a singular feat. Robertson never allows his film to devolve into another cliched “ghetto” success story or enshrine 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.