There is a preconception that New Zealand has somehow emerged into the new century as a kind of heavenly utopia. New Zealanders themselves would be among the first to tell you that it is not as simple as that. It is the violent underbelly that Savage throws you into, recalling true stories from the country’s biker gangs across a thirty-year period. Don’t go in expecting an action-packed adventure with bullet ricochets and one-liners. This is a slow, twisting knife of a film that dwells on animalistic behaviour as much as it does the tortured soul of its protagonist.

Savage focuses on Danny (Jake Ryan), or Damage as he is referred to in adulthood, and his time as a mob enforcer for a biker gang known as The Savages, run by his long-time friend Moses (John Tui). Through flashbacks to his childhood and adolescence, you see how others disregard his welfare and wellbeing in favour of their own, and how he ends up as a hollow monster arguably worse than any of his old enemies. 

Writer-director Sam Kelly’s feature debut makes for a compelling watch. You won’t look away even when relatively little is happening, in case you miss the next sorry chapter of Damage’s life. There is a decaying state of humanity that pervades the film as it progresses, the biker gang descending into a bickering pack of wolves. And all the while Damage has to wrestle with his dedication to the gang and his saturation in violence, the tattoos across his face almost feeling like brands that commit him to this life. It is a magnetic performance from Ryan, whose unnerving silences are broken up by him throwing his weight around when the film hits its most dramatic. His relationship with Moses has real depth to it and never goes down the route you expect, helped by a powerful showing from Tui. 

For a film where there are several jumps in time, the pacing is almost perfect. The story knows when to keep moving and when to slow down so you are forced to take in the severity of the situation, helped at just the right moments by Arli Liberman’s enveloping score. You may feel that even more could have been made of Damage’s character and of those around him (his mother, in particular, feels poorly underwritten). If anything, for all that it rewards you with, Savage could have gone even further with the story’s emotional core. You find yourself caring more about what is happening than who it is happening to.

This is a stellar debut littered with barbarism and touches of thoughtfulness. Savage is a bare-knuckle tale of emptiness and bloodshed in a world that offers little in return, and its powerful imagery can stay with you for a very long time.

Dir: Sam Kelly

Scr: Sam Kelly

Cast: Jake Ryan, John Tui, Chelsie Preston Crayford, Seth Flynn

Prd: Vicky Pope, Diana Kelly

DOP: James L. Brown

Music: Arli Liberman

Country: New Zealand

Year: 2019

Run time: 100 minutes

Savage is released on 11th September.

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