Movie Review: 'SAVAGE' (2019)

A review of a movie about gang life in Aotearoa.

Submitted by LAMA on September 22, 2020

There is a beautifully acted and emblematic scene early in Savage, the newest movie about gangs in Aotearoa. In it, a founding member of the Savages revealingly named Damage[d]/Danny (Jake Ryan) tries to charm a young woman at a party. At first his efforts seem to be successful, then he resorts to an ugly aggressiveness that kills the mood he had almost achieved. This scene lays bare a Manichean struggle between an inner child reaching for a human connection and an outward broken, thuggish creature. Next we are given an extended flashback that shows how this combination came to be. It’s a catalogue of missteps and brutality towards a child in the hands of both an authoritarian father and similar father figures in institutional settings. By the time Danny leaves the latter, the damage is done and Damage is out savaging the world.

We learn along the way how Danny came to help found the gang. In essence the inspiration revolves around the desire for a substitute family. This is assayed in part via a sub-plot involving his biological brother Liam (Seth Flynn). Is blood thicker than water? Does Cain and Abel still resonate? The narrative attempts to answer these questions and is mostly successful. It is at its most effective during quiet moments when there is no dialogue. Ryan is superb at conveying the inner anguish of his character purely through the eyes and with a slight quiver of the lips. Flynn as the adult Liam, (interestingly looking somewhat like Shakespeare) also garners quiet attention here in his interactions with Danny. Their attempts to connect are painful to watch, not because of the easily expressed bitterness and anger but the confused feelings of connection under the surface.

The other element of this mix is Danny’s early brother-in-adversity, Moses (John Tui). Moses is the nominal President of the gang but his position is very much linked to the ability of Damage to enforce his edicts. Given Danny’s volatile internal conflict, this puts Moses in an unstable and dependent situation that provides its own source of tension and drama. There is also a young prospect who represents a slim but real avenue of redemption for Danny and symbolically a potential path not taken during that age of his own journey. While the acting here is uniformly excellent and credible, the purpose of this character in the narrative is just a bit too transparent.

Savage is very much a case study and personal journey of a single person. This has immense benefits when the burden of portraying this is put on the shoulders of a capable actor, as Ryan shows himself to be here. However, the downside of this approach is while it does a good job of exploring personal psychology, it fails to look at the wider effects of the gang phenomenon. First time Director Sam Kelly keeps the action so hermetically focused upon Damage and his associates, we attain little sense of the anti-social harm gangs can cause to others. Much like in The Godfather, civilians barely exist in the world portrayed and even when holding violent disputes with rivals in public, no innocent bystanders are ever harmed. In that regard it just doesn’t ring true. As for the violence itself, credit can be given for Kelly’s choice of not going down the Scorsese route of layering music over the top of it. The weapons of choice are close distance cudgels, hammers and so on and we hear every horrible crunch as they impact upon each victim. There’s nothing stylised about it.

Another aspect of the gang’s existence Kelly’s artificially isolated approach fails to show, is that we have no idea how they survive financially. Whatever it is, you can bet it was not by selling Girl Scout cookies on the streets of Porirua. There is one brief scene at a funeral for a murdered fellow gang member, attended by the dead person’s non-gang family. Danny and his cohorts proceed to hijack the body and conduct their own ritual of sorts. The grieving family are seen at a mid-shot distance, very much as the gang members would view the outside world. Related to this is the fact that not a single policeman ever appears in the movie, even to investigate the killing. True, a movie that did show the intrusion of the world outside the gang itself could become crudely didactic and preachy. However, it wouldn’t have to be, if handled well. In the movie’s choice to look at gang life solely from the inside, it misses an opportunity to widen the perspective and show the full and real impact of what they do to others. A more dialectical interplay between the individual as a product of society and what that results in for that society, would have taken it to a greater level of understanding.

Savage drills down into the specifics of how society creates broken, deracinated people. It is direct, at times lyrical, well acted and directed and among the best movies looking at its subject in the local context.