Once Were Warriors isn't a fun movie by any stretch of the imagination. Violence and anger are at the core of this powerful film, which doesn't shy away from showing the domestic abuse in all of its potent rage.
The story revolves around Beth and Jake Heke (Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison) who, to outsiders at least, have seem to have a wonderful life—five healthy kids and plenty of friends and laughter. But Jake is a very angry man and physically takes this negative energy out on his wife. In one very telling scene, Jake literally pummels and rapes his wife while his children huddle together upstairs, trying not to be heard.
Unlike many films that center around domestic abuse, the relationships work in Once Were Warriors because we get a chance to understand the family dynamics. We see that Jake and Beth love each other and that they want to do right for their kids. But Jake's drinking and inevitable violence pushes them away, yet his sincerity when he's sober manages to bring them back. This seems real. It's believable. Which makes the events that much more upsetting and painful.
The parents aren't the only ones with problems, however, which adds another layer to this film. Each of the kids play a key role here. For example, Grace (Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell), the oldest daughter, carries around her anger but writes down her sorrows and is trying to better herself through education. The oldest son, Nig (Julian Arahanga) finds friends in a street gang. Boogie (Taungaroa Emile) is forced to live in a foster home, where he learns to find his strength inside himself. Their Maori ancestors were warriors, but as it turns out, all of them are still warriors in their own way.
The performances in this film are sensational all around, which is why this film works. Each character plays a key role, and the choices they make add to this powerful drama. It's a cold, hard look at reality that many want to turn away from, but it's also a film that cannot be ignored.
I was stunned by how nice this film looks. Warner Bros. offers Once Were Warriors in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation that looks amazing. Detail is very sharp even into the shadows. Colors are vibrant and skin tones look realistic. Blacks are very solid. Mosquito noise, fuzziness, and scratches/nicks aren't even a factor here. Edge enhancement is this transfer's only real problem. Luckily, these problems aren't overly distracting. They are sometimes noticeable, but not in any way that affects the quality of this presentation.
This disc offers a number of sound options. The 2.0 presentation is adequate but with the Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1 tracks, why bother? Both digital tracks are solid, but the DTS is slightly better. The bass is deeper here, and you get a general crispness that is lacking in the Dolby track. The Dolby track sounds great, but the DTS track truly immerses you in the film. The music sounds flawless, voices are clear, and the rears actually come into play at the bar and when the traffic roars outside of the Heke house. For this film, I can't imagine a better audio track.
Also note that this disc offers English subtitles.
THE BONUS FEATURES
The best bonus feature on this disc is the director's screen-specific commentary. Lee Tamahori is very knowledgeable about the film and about Maori history, and he showcases his knowledge on this track. He talks fast, but for the most part, what he says is very interesting. Not only does he explain the reasons for certain shots and other behind-the-scenes information, but he also shares some Maori culture. Fans of the film will love this commentary.
Also on tap is a short but interesting behind-the-scenes featurette that focuses primarily on interviews with the cast, producer, writer, and director. The tattoo gallery is nothing but photos from the film, with an emphasis on the tattoos. Tamahori offers a commentary over the images that points out the detail and realism of the skin art.
Lastly, you get two trailers, both in anamorphic widescreen with 5.1 Dolby Digital sound. The United States theatrical trailer and the one used for the New Zealand market are shown here, and Tamahori once again provides commentary over both that explains why he chose to market the film the way he did.
Once Were Warriors gets the DVD treatment it deserves. It's a great film that now has a great transfer. Fans who purchased the Canadian release (review) will definitely want to get this upgrade. I'm not sure the film warrants a blind purchase because many might be turned off by the subject matter. However, it's an important film and a great DVD, so I must highly recommend this one.