When it comes to New Zealand’s cinematic landscape director Sam Kelly (Lambs) is a storyteller who leads out at the front with a unique voice all his own. He’s a director who isn’t afraid to take audiences into the darker corners of Aotearoa that some might fear to tread and this shows in all his work to date. His work here in Savage is a haunting portrayal of New Zealand’s gangland and the men who find a home within it and is an example of cinema at its most compelling.
Inspired by stories from New Zealand’s boys’ homes and the early history of our gangs, Savage follows Danny (Jake Ryan) across three decades of his life, taking a deeper look at a boy who grows into the brutal enforcer of a gang, to understand how he got there.
In Savage, director Sam Kelly takes audiences inside the hidden subculture of New Zealand’s gangland and produces a historically accurate portrait of how it evolved and those men who find their lives shaped by it. Audiences need to be forewarned that Kelly doesn’t pull any punches with either his film’s subject matter or narrative, and his eye for cultural relevance and authenticity makes the film that much more engaging. As a director, he holds nothing back about these characters, or the scars that have shaped them, and all of it leads to an incredibly compelling watch.
Beginning in 1965 and culminating in 1989, Kelly’s Savage charts the story of Danny (Jake Ryan) and his journey to becoming Damage, the brutal enforcer of an outlaw criminal gang, The Savages. Through this unique narrative structure that covers three distinct time periods of 1965, 1972 and 1989, Kelly is able to produce a thoroughly intimate and layered portrait of Danny’s life and the events that push him into claiming a patch. This film is both shaped by drama and history and Kelly doesn’t shy away from any of it as he gets to the very core of Danny’s trauma, along with the physical, mental and emotional violence that has shaped him, and these moments hit with the force of a ball pin hammer.
A huge contributing factor to Savage’s power over the audience and the reaction that it creates in them stems from the level of authenticity that Kelly brings to his subject matter. Cultural advisor Wayne Hapi (The Dark Horse) was an integral collaborator to Kelly and together these two, with their large and passionate team, got everything right. Everything just fits together in Savage. Key to this was the film’s casting which drew from the local community and added that quintessential realness that Kelly wanted to capture on-screen. Three amazing performances that came out of this included young stars Olly Presling and James Matamua who portray Damage at ages 10 and 16, along with Alex Raivaru who portrays the film’s chief antagonist Tug, who is gunning for Moses’s president patch and is willing to run through Damage to get it. This focus on local casting and dedication to the real made all the difference for Savage and it shows up on the screen.
A team of behind-the-scenes talent also made a big impact on the final product of Savage. From the film’s location setting and production design of Chris Elliot to the rugged and intimidating wardrobe of Bob Buck to the imposing and incredibly realistic hair and make-up of Stefan Knight. All of this on-screen detail comes together perfectly to capture this unseen world.
Capturing the events of Savage is cinematographer James L. Brown and he brings a unique earthy palette of browns, greens, greys and blacks to the surface of this film that helps to raise its edge and the ferocity of the picture. Also to be factored into Savage’s impressive tone is the sound design of Nick Buckton which firmly places you in this loud world of unhinged aggression, while composer Arli Liberman’s haunting, yet melodious soundtrack is a touching piece of work that helps to take audiences deeper into Danny/Damage’s psyche and the fractured emotions that he feels.
Leading Savage from the front is Australian actor Jake Ryan, and he brings tremendous gravitas to the role of Danny aka Damage. As the Sgt. At Arms, Damage is the gang’s resident enforcer and is feared and loathed by all those around him. He’s a man who has a talent for violence, but who is now beginning to falter due to internal conflict, alongside his scarred emotional state. While Ryan is an absolute beast in the role and cuts an intimidating figure as the patched gang leader his real strength is the emotional complexity that he gives to Damage and his ability to draw out this man’s own internal demons and conflicted headspace.
While it’s easy to see Damage as a simple monster. A literal walking Frankenstein’s Monster who has been let off his chain to cause chaos, Ryan makes him a completely 360 person who is not devoid of emotion or feelings and longs for the chance to finally go home. Ryan’s performance will cut audiences deep to the bone with its layered detail and he presents a very grey character who is neither good nor bad but exists in the middle. Power, presence and bravery permeate in Ryan’s performance as Damage, and it’s clear that as a performer he has incredible mana that bears an important influence over his choices as an actor in the role of Damage, and this character and Ryan’s performance, is certain to remain with the audience.
Providing backup to Ryan’s Damage is noted New Zealand performer John Tui as gang president Moses. Tui’s performance is unique here and channels the conflicted nature of this sub-culture and the brotherhood that exists within it. Having known Danny since he was young, Moses is his literal blood brother and the two of them have created their own empire together where they can be kings. But the times are changing and it soon becomes apparent that what they built won’t last forever. Tui’s performance is far less stern than Ryan’s and he’s very much the life and soul of the party as Moses, albeit still being able to resort to extreme violence when necessary. With Moses what we are seeing is very much the idea of the King in his twilight and this places him at odds with his sworn blood brother Damage. Tui has a great back and forth with Ryan and each actor feeds off the others performance and leads to an interesting examination of Kiwi masculinity and its place within this environment.
Thematically Savage plays with and examines some big ideas and these are sure to hit audiences hard. Issues of family, loyalty, identity and past trauma come into play here and Kelly and his stars don’t hold back in the expression of them. The world that Savage is set in is an uncomfortable one and Kelly doesn’t sugar coat any of it, and this only hastens the effect of the film on the audience. Through it audiences can learn not to judge a book by its cover, and that sometimes the masks that certain individuals wear are actually hiding far more personal issues. Savage is a rallying cry to listen, learn and heal and by its closing credits, audiences will have seen this brutal yet broken man having undergone a serious journey that changes him for good, and who for the first time in his life might finally find some sense of peace within his life.
Savage is an utterly triumphant piece of cinema that hits audiences deep with its layered narrative and complex character. It’s a raw piece of cinema that doesn’t let up for a moment, and its heartfelt character study of one man’s journey home is sure to resonate with all New Zealander’s in the most poignant way possible. It absolutely is required viewing.
Image: MadMan Films