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Based on the novel by Alan Duff, Once Were Warriors is a 1994 film set in New Zealand and dealing with the trials of a dysfunctional working-class Maori family. It was famous on its release as a result of its hard-hitting depiction of low-life, abuse and poverty among poor urban Maori (something of a hot-button issue in New Zealand).Due to its success it became something of an icon for the New Zealand film industry of the 90s, creating a number of persistent NZ cultural memes and adding to the cult status of Temuera Morrison.
Badass Grandpa: The instructor in the traditional Maori ways is at least 50 and he easily takes a stick from Jake and does some pretty impressive martial arts with it.
Beauty Is Never Tarnished: One of the most dramatic aversions in cinema. After Jake brutally beats and rapes Beth, she looks it.
Beware the Nice Ones: Uncle Bully is usually polite and rather nice, especially when compared to Jake. He never shouts and is nice to Grace before raping her.
Calling the Old Man Out: Nig ultimately manages to do this after he’s been fully initiated into the Toa Aotearoa gang. When Jake attempts to hit Beth for the last time, he catches his arm and stands up to him.
Cool Shades: Beth sports them at the end during the funeral to show that she has finally become tough and independent.
Die, Chair! Die!: While Grace's funeral is going on, Jake is sitting in the pub. A song he'd been singing along to with his family (See Ear Worm) earlier in the film comes on and Jake becomes so enraged that he grabs a bar stool and puts it through the jukebox.
Domestic Abuse: Jake abuses Beth (and, presumably, the children) regularly. Also inverts the trope Beauty Is Never Tarnished, as poor Beth's face looks like it's been rearranged after one of Jake's benders.
Driven to Suicide: Poor Grace ends up hanging herself on a clothing line tied to a tree after her rape at the hands of Uncle Bully.
Empathy Doll Shot: When Uncle Bully comes in to rape Grace, there’s an overturned teddy bear lying near the door.
Even Evil Has Standards: Jake is a completely amoral bastard who is almost always drunk, unconcerned about his family’s budget and survival, beats and rapes Beth, and nearly beats Grace at one point. However, even he finds it too far that Bully has raped Grace and beats the bloody pulp out of him.
Facial Markings: Nig gets half of his face patched with dark green markings after getting fully initiated into the Toa Aotearoa gang.
Fan Disservice: The long, protracted kissing between Jake and Beth early on, which seems to be intentionally filmed in the most unappealing way possible.
Freudian Excuse: At one point Jake seems to justify his actions by saying that he comes from a long line of slaves. Given what he does in the film, no-one buys it.
Lightning Bruiser: Jake is one in bar fights. Early on in the film, he beats up a guy who is bigger than him by being faster and attacking first, going for the head before he realised what happened.
Marital Rape License: Jake seems to believe in it and acts on it after one drunk party. Disturbingly, Beth believes in it, too, as she takes advice from her friend “Just keep your mouth shut and your legs open.”
Mood Whiplash: Nearly every scene of beating is preceded and almost immediately followed by bikes, sunglasses and other superficial cool.
Obviously Evil: Did anyone really expect a character called Uncle Bully to be good?
Only Sane Woman: Grace seems to be the only one who realises how bad things are for them and attempts to do something positive for her siblings. it doesn’t work out well for her.
Police Are Useless: The police let Jake get away with his violence in the bar for an awful lot of time before he’s finally arrested.
Rape Is a Special Kind of Evil: Child rape certainly is, as Grace is driven to suicide because of it and the perpetrator is called out on it and beaten to bloody pulp. However, Beth’s rape at the hands of Jake is not treated as anything different from the regular abuse she endures at the hands of Jake and when she forgives him for it, the film no longer comes back to it again.
Sir Swears-a-Lot: Jake Heke. The F-word is said 93 times throughout the film, nearly always by him.
Soundtrack Dissonance: “What have you done to my baby” is played by Jake and his friends when outside Grace goes to kill herself.
Pretty much every time someone is beaten a cool guitar riff is played.
The Stoner: Toot is a rather typical one. It says a lot that he is one of the better characters in the film.
Title Drop: Beth to Jake at the end: Our people once were warriors. And not like you, Jake.
Victim Blaming: Jake is completely unashamed to blame Beth for everything he does to her, including savagely beating her after she refuses to cook for his guests and then raping her.
Villainous Breakdown: Jake finally undergoes one when Grace hangs herself, unable to hit Beth when directly confronted by her and reduced to smashing furniture and pointlessly attempting to chop down a tree.
Wild Teen Party: Jake tends to invite everyone from the pub back to his house on a nightly basis.
Wretched Hive: The whole area where Hekes and other Maori live is a ruined industrial wasteland. Film intentionally begins with a shot of the lush, green trees surrounding a calm, beautiful lake, then zooms out to show it’s nothing more than a billboard.