Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
The Dark Horse: Cliff Curtis Becomes Genesis Potini
you want to know the latest developments in competitive chess or the sorry
state of human rights in Russia, Garry Kasparov’s twitter feed is required
reading. The witty and erudite Kasparov might be one of the few grandmasters
you would actually want to have dinner with. Remember how creepy Bobby Fischer
turned out? Genesis Potini struggled with even greater mental and emotional issues,
but his heart was always in the right place. Potini finds the best way to
stabilize his chemically unbalanced mind is by coaching a chess team of underprivileged
youths in James Napier Robertson’s The
Dark Horse (trailer
opens this Friday in New York.
is no mistaking the extreme nature of Potini’s bipolar condition. We first meet
him in the midst of a full blown episode. It is only the sight of an antique
chess set that somewhat calms (or at least slows) down Potini to some extent.
The rather generous reception the store offers to the furiously muttering
Potini quickly demonstrates Robertson’s restraint. Marginalized even within his
ethnic Maori community, Potini’s social and economic realities are crystal
clear from the onset. They need no heavy-handed incidents to underscore them.
Potini’s brother Ariki, a high-ranking member of a biker-gang, takes the
troubled former competitive chess player into his home. However, Potini is
uncomfortable with the gang’s vice and aggression. He seeks a sense of
belonging in a chess club sponsored by a former mate, initially unaware it serves
at-risk kids. Yet, when Noble Keelan gives him a chance, Potini shows an
aptitude for coaching, particularly when he relates the game to Maori legends.
He even starts to reach his standoffish nephew Mana. Unfortunately, Ariki is dead
set on initiating Mana into the gang on the very same day Potini’s team, the
Eastern Knights, will compete in their first tournament.
probably think you know where this film is
headed and it is true Robertson is fiercely determined to inspire viewers, no
matter how cynical they are. Nevertheless, Dark
Horse is light years removed from simplistic television movie terrain, nor
does Robertson ever opt to take the easy way out. There is no “cure” in sight for
Potini, only more effective management techniques.
really distinguishes Dark Horse is
Cliff Curtis’s remarkable portrayal of Potini. Despite his frequent descents
into mania, it is not a flashy performance. Curtis pulls us into his hulking
frame (for which he reportedly packed on sixty pounds), rather than engaging in
cheap tics. Curtis has a background in Mau Rakau martial arts and constantly
seems to be jogging as the lead in Fear the Walking Dead, but as Potini, he looks like a walking PSA for diabetes
and heart disease. Yet, there is something soulful about his screen-presence,
even when he is quietly careening out of control.
Hapi has a similarly powerful physical bearing, but his work as Akiri might even
be more complex and subtly modulated. His parenting choices will strike viewers
as tragically wrong, yet we understand exactly why he makes them. The young
supporting cast is also loaded with raw, natural talent, but James Rolleston
and Niwa Whatuira are standouts for their charisma and intensity, as Mana and Keelan’s
promising recruit Michael Manihera.
Robertson never tries to reinvent the wheel
during Dark Horse, but he tells
Potini’s story with incredible honesty and sensitivity. He also guides his
ensemble (of radically differing experience levels) to some highly compelling
performances. Recommended for those who appreciate a little inspiration without
sentimentality or beautification, The
Dark Horse opens this Friday (4/1) in New York, at the Angelika Film
Labels: Cliff Curtis, New Zealand cinema