By now we’re all familiar with the underdog story. Whether fiction or non-fiction, most of these stories follow the outline laid out by The Bad News Bears – a group of children that nobody believes in achieve the impossible when an outsider shows them the way to succeed. Typically, these movies place their emotional weight on a binary outcome: win or lose. On the surface, The Dark Horse, the new film from writer-director James Napier Robertson, seems like just another one of these well-worn underdog tales. In fact, this rousing and moving picture avoids the most generic of framing in favor of a much more personal tale about compassion and empathy.
Cliff Curtis gives a powerhouse performance as Genesis Potini, a real life chess master whose glory days known as “the Dark Horse” have been overshadowed by his ongoing battle with bipolar disorder. When we first see Genesis he’s in the middle of an episode, wandering the streets in the rain muttering to himself. Though he’s briefly calmed by the sight of a chess board, it’s not long before Genesis is rounded up by the authorities. Having been institutionalized many times over the years, Genesis is given another chance in society when his brother Mutt (Barry Te Hira) agrees to take him in. Genesis is presented with a plethora of pills and instructions to avoid stress, which is likely to trigger further incidents.
But Genesis hasn’t been released into a stable environment. Mutt is a member of gang, a Hell’s Angels-styled gang called the Vagrants, and plans to have his teenage son, Mana (James Rolleston), initiated in the gang. However, Genesis does find something to give him a bit of hope when he stumbles upon a chess club for kids headed by his old friend Noble (Kirk Torrance). At first skeptical, Noble soon welcomes Genesis as the new coach of this chess team. Genesis doesn’t set his sights on small goals, and wants to take the team to the New Zealand national finals in Auckland. In order to pull off this improbable feat, Genesis must keep himself centered amidst all the problems that come with life.
Whereas most movies with this sort of subject matter would be laborious in its profound messaging, with impassioned speeches meant to snap the underdog children out of their funk. That never happens in The Dark Horse, as Curtis’ Genesis uses the metaphor of mythology to inspire. More than every character telling each other how they should rise above the muck of poverty, James Napier Robertson chooses moments of strong empathy, where a simple gesture like a hand on the shoulder can give more comfort and confidence than a wordy monologue.
And that’s where the emotional power of The Dark Horse lies – its pure belief in the redemptive power of empathy. There’s no cartoonish portrayal about mental illness, Curtis is too smart an actor to convey Genesis as the stereotypical tortured genius. In the film, the methods that work best to calm the more manic episodes are empathetic gestures, moments of understanding and kindness. However, not all characters are full of sympathy for Genesis or anyone else for that matter. Once again, The Dark Horse shows empathy as a way out for Mana, a child raised to believe that violence is the only solution. When all seems dark, just a bit of hope and understanding can have a remarkable effect.
At the film’s moment of triumph, when the kids are at the finals for the great chess tournament, the deciding moment is left ambiguous. Genesis had been kicked out of the auditorium for his boisterous coaching. We see him outside on the verge of a manic attack when the fateful moment (which I won’t spoil) happens. It’s a smart and deliberate choice that takes the meaning of the film away from win or lose – it’s immaterial. Instead, The Dark Horse remains about human relationships that so happen to coalesce around a chess board.
There’s not a moment that feels out of place in The Dark Horse. This is movie where everything clicks. Even the decisions of Genesis in his moments of mental anguish aren’t a mystery to the audience. The Dark Horse is a rousing drama led by Cliff Curtis’ magnificent performance. It’s no mystery as to why The Dark Horse is one of the most popular films to ever come from New Zealand. We all know those well-worn underdog stories. This isn’t one of those. This is something much more special and honest, a wondrous triumph of cinema.
- The Dark Horse
Led by a powerful performance from Cliff Curtis, The Dark Horse eschews the generic frame of the underdog story for a much more honest and powerful tale about the power of empathy.