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Film / Once Were Warriors

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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 Māori family. It was famous on its release as a result of its hard-hitting depiction of low-life, abuse and poverty among poor urban Māori (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.

Has the examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Jake, obviously, but Beth also realizes she is emotionally abusive towards Grace and physically abusive to Nig. She even tells Grace that a woman's lot in life is to be saddled with an abusive husband.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In the novel, Mavis weighs "plus-twenty stone," nearly three hundred pounds. She's played by a slinky-looking Mere Boynton in the film.
  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: In the novel, Jake leaves the family after Grace's death and lives in a park, where he befriends a homeless man while Beth tries to start a new life without him. In the film, Beth finds out that Bully raped Grace and tells Jake. He subsequently beats and castrates the perpetrator and is arrested, while his family moves on without him.
  • Adaptation Deviation: The novel focuses almost entirely on Jake, the film is as much a story about Beth and her children, and notably changes the ending to give her a more active role.
  • Adaptational Heroism: A small change, but in the novel Beth's alcoholism is much more pronounced. In the scene were Jake abandons his family in a pub after promising "just one drink," in the novel Beth eventually joins him and only has second thoughts when she realizes several hours have passed and it's too late to visit Boogie.
    • Beth is generally a far more irresponsible and unstable character at the beginning, making her and Jake roughly equals whose paths diverge in opposite directions. In the film, despite her flaws she clearly has a moral high ground on him from the beginning, while Jake only gets worse and worse.
  • Adaptational Karma: In the novel, Uncle Bully doesn't get any comeuppance. Grace was either unconscious during her rape, or so traumatized that she suppressed the memory. Either way, she doesn't remember who attacked her but suspects it might've been her father, who's too drunk to remember if he did or not. In the film, Grace was fully conscious and writes about the rape in her diary, Beth finds out and tells Jake, and Jake subsequently beats and castrates Bully.
  • Adaptational Wimp: In the novel, Beth is more actively opposed to Jake from the beginning, and actively takes step to improve her and her family's life without his help. Notably, in the novel she's the one who pays for the visit to Boogie by quitting drinking and saving up what would've been her drinking money, while in the film Jake pays for the trip with his gambling earnings.
  • Adaptational Villainy: A lot of Jake's character development is cut due to the Perspective Shift to Beth. In the novel, he seems to be genuinely regretful by his violent behavior by the end and willingly leaves his family. In the film, he's as belligerent as ever and has to be arrested to finally get him away from his family.
  • Adapted Out : Beth's second son, Abe. In the book, she has six children: Nig, Abe, Boog, Grace, Polly, and Huata.
  • Alleged Car: Beth and her remaining family drive away from Jake in one at the end. It takes about ten seconds before it even starts up.
  • Atomic F-Bomb: Jake to Beth, when she stops having sex with him early on.
    Jake:"FUUUUCK YOU!"
  • 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.
  • Cluster F-Bomb: When Jake gets angry, he's either dropping these or giving someone a No Holds Barred Beat Down, or doing both at the same time.
  • The Caretaker: Grace consoling her younger siblings as they cry listening to Jake beating up Beth.
  • Cool Shades: Beth sports them at the end during the funeral to show that she has finally become tough and independent.
  • Demoted to Extra: The Toa gang, and by extension in Nig himself. In the novel, they're a major component of his arc in seeking a surrogate family. In the film, they fade into the background after his initiation, and his own appearances and role in the story are slimmed down considerably.
  • Department of Child Disservices: The hapless social worker who visits the Hekes. Subverted in that Boogie actually does get better after being taken away.
  • 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 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.
  • '80s Hair: Mavis has some pretty big, puffy curls.
  • 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 selfish uncaring violent 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 is badly shaken by Grace's suicide, and beats Uncle Bully to a bloody pulp in a blind rage when he finds out he raped her.
  • 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.
  • Fantasy-Forbidding Father: Jake, who criticises Grace for always writing stories. Towards the end of the film he even rips her diary in half.
  • Faux Affably Evil: Uncle Bully remains polite and soft-spoken even as he rapes Grace.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Grace and Boogie. Grace is the older of the pair, is responsible and stays out of trouble. Younger brother Boogie smokes, runs with gangs, and is apparently no stranger to the police.
  • Foreshadowing: At one point, the family stops by the road and Beth points out a cemetery where her ancestors are buried...
    Grace: I'd love to go see them.
    Beth: Not before me, you don't.
  • Hair-Trigger Temper: Jake is a very violent and abusive alcoholic man who beats everyone (including Beth, his wife) at the slightest provocation.
  • Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Mavis. Beth too, until she slaps Nig for pointing out she's a drunken mess which triggers her to change for the better.
  • Heel Realization: After Grace's suicide, a visibly shaken Jake wonders if he had been too tough on her.
  • Hell-Bent for Leather: The Toa Aotearoa members, as befits what is effectively a biker gang.
  • Hope Spot: The moment after Beth is savagely beaten and raped by Jake has them seemingly re-unite and go to a family picnic to see Boogie, before Jake's drunkenness takes over again.
  • How Dare You Die on Me!: Beth does this over Grace’s body.
  • Inferiority Superiority Complex: This is the true source of Jake's violence, selfishness and cruelty. He never measured up to the standards of Beth's family when they first married and he even comments on how he'd like to see them try to disrespect him now. He picks fights at his local bar to let everyone know he's the top dog and he physically or verbally abuses Beth every time she tries to stand up to him or treat him like he's not the king of his castle. The only way he knows how to respond to the triggering of his feelings of inadequacy is to lash out with extreme violence.
  • Kiss-Kiss-Slap: Grace does not react well to getting a surprise kiss from Toot. It's most likely touch aversion from getting raped the night before. This leads to some guilt on Toot's part at her funeral, as it was the last time he saw her alive. He did genuinely love her, he just had no idea what Grace was going through and would only find out after the funeral.
  • Lightning Bruiser: Jake is one in bar fights. Early on in the film, he beats the tar out of a guy who is more muscular and much younger 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.”
  • Mama Bear: Beth. Especially after Grace's death.
  • Mood Whiplash: Nearly every scene of beating is preceded and almost immediately followed by bikes, sunglasses and other superficially cool things.
  • No-Holds-Barred Beatdown: Jake is such a Lightning Bruiser with his fists that practically all of his fights turn into one. His beating of Beth is also this extreme, and he beats Uncle Bully to near death when he finds out he raped Grace.
  • 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.
  • Pet the Dog: A few members of the Toa Aotearoa gang attend Grace's funeral.
  • 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.
  • Precision F-Strike: "Just stay out of my fucking way!"
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: Boogie slowly learns that the Māori are a proud warrior people during his time in state care, and Beth even tells Jake the same, and that his own brand of violence is nothing like it.
  • 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 a 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.
  • Setting Update: Not in time but in location - the film is set in Auckland, while the novel's set in the (fictional) town of Two Rivers, based on the author's hometown of Rotorua ("Two Rivers" is a literal English translation of "Rotorua").
  • 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.
  • Token Good Teammate: Dooley out of Jake's friends seem to be the nicest member. He tries to get everybody to get along though he also doesn't do jack about Jake's abuse of his family. He's the one who immediately cuts down Grace upon discovering her body, pleads with Beth and Jake to be amicable when she confronts him about Bully, and tries to stop Jake from killing Bully, even if he calls Bully a dumb bastard in distress.
  • Too Good for This Sinful Earth: The movie version has Beth make this kind of statement about Grace when she confronts Jake and Uncle Bully: "Well it's violence that killed my Grace! She didn't have an ounce of violence in her, Jake. But we made damn sure it was all around 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 the tree she hung herself from.
  • Workout Fanservice: It's short, but in the start of the film Nig and his buddies are shown working out in an improvised gym.
  • Wouldn't Hurt a Child: A third party variation when Dooley stops Jake from beating Grace, referring to her as "just a kid."
  • Wretched Hive: The whole area where Hekes and other Māori live is a ruined industrial wasteland. The 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. This is Truth in Television, as the majority of Māori families live in far more impoverished conditions than white families in New Zealand.