The Damage is Done: A Review of Savage

Tom Augustine on a damning depiction of traditional New Zealand masculinity.

The word ‘fuck’ is uttered more than any other in Sam Kelly’s Savage, which premiered on New Zealand screens this month. Done badly, overuse of swear words can feel like a filmmaker is trying to force edginess, or oversell the drama of a moment in a way that dips into tackiness. The best use of cuss words is situational, a kind of punctuation on an authentic, location-specific dialect. Such is the case in Savage. The film follows the lives of two men growing up in a gang modelled on New Zealand’s most infamous gangs. For them, ‘fuck’ is a way of life. ‘Fuck’ is every second word. The soundscape mixes the exclamations of the word by gang-members around our central characters regularly, the softness of the ‘fff—’ that begins the word washing up against your eardrums alongside other guttural outbursts like ‘beast’ or ‘huta’ at a near constant rhythm – a verbal facet to a performance of masculinity that at once protects and damns these men.

Savage is being billed as a new generation’s Once Were Warriors, with surface-level similarities to that film’s depiction of gang initiation. Warriors remains the better film, and Savage’s grim-faced seriousness is never going to win over the dedicated admiration that Warriors’ vivid spiritedness inspires. But neither is Savage telling the same sort of story. Where Once Were Warriors was ultimately about one woman’s fight for liberation against a backdrop of the profound harm colonisation has caused to Māori, Savage instead turns its attention to the modern crisis of New Zealand masculinity.

Traditional notions of masculinity have never been more challenged, and found to be lacking in a more urgent manner

Savage tackles masculinity by framing it in the starkest terms possible, by whittling New Zealand’s very specific type of masculinity into its most stereotypically frightening national image – the leather-jacketed, tattooed and patched figures of the nation’s gangs.

It’s a lofty comparison, but the film I was most strongly reminded of in watching Savage was Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning Moonlight, both in thematic material and in structure. Both films deploy a triptych structure, stopping in on the characters at three different stages of their lives, from childhood into adulthood. Both films frame their characters’ arcs against harsh, crime-dominated backgrounds. Both films also address a period in modern society in which traditional notions of masculinity have never been more challenged, and found to be lacking in a more urgent manner.

At the centre of Savage is Danny, later to be aptly nicknamed ‘Damage’, played as an open wound by Jake Ryan. Damage is a ferocious enforcer, a consigliere and deputy to Moses, his childhood best friend and leader of the Savages in 1989. Danny has a thick beard, the rest of his face covered in bold black tattoos. The only parts of his face he can’t hide are his eyes, profoundly sad and soulful, glaring out at an antagonistic world. The precarious and paranoid Moses, meanwhile, is played by John Tui, whose scene-stealing supporting turns this year in Savage and The Legend of Baron To‘a have made a case for Tui as one of the finest Kiwi character actors of his generation. Dissent is spreading through the ranks of the Savages, led by fearsome antagonist Tug (Alex Raivaru – fantastic), who are tired of being broke under Moses’ leadership.

The film makes the shrewd choice to depict these broken souls in adulthood at the beginning of the film as a kind of prologue, culminating in a fascinatingly difficult scene played out between Damage and Flo, a member of a sex workers’ collective, played by Chelsie Preston Crayford. In the scene, Damage and Flo are heading towards hooking up, and as they move things to the bed, Flo repeatedly tries to engage in something tender with Damage. She repeatedly asserts that she wants to lead things, stopping Damage from roughly dominating as he’s become accustomed to. She tries to get him to look her in the eyes, soon prompting an angry, frustrated response from Damage – a primal cry of ‘huta!’ – that cuts the night short as she gives up and walks away. It’s a stunning, alarming moment – rarely have I seen a New Zealand film confront the divide between Kiwi men’s suppression of their desire for intimacy, and their need to appear strong to others, with such stark absence of sentiment.

What would the men in this film find if they allowed any kind of softness or kindness into their lives?

As the moment ends, the film propels us, as it must, back to 1965, and the forging of the Damage–Moses friendship and their first steps down a doomed path. It’s a wise choice, as it quickly becomes clear there is a connection between the profoundly traumatic events the two boys endure as children and their evolution into perpetrators. Young Danny lives in a household of violence and poverty, his father (Matthew Sunderland) an abusive and glowering type as pitifully unremarkable in his wounded masculinity as he is in being a shadowy overseer of Danny’s psychological pain well into adulthood. His mother (Renee Lyons), meanwhile, is a kind presence unable to protect her children from her husband’s cruelty. When Danny is caught shoplifting in an attempt to feed his family, he is sent to one of New Zealand’s notorious boys’ homes, sites of well-documented abuse of every shade. As he leaves, Danny’s mother gives him her only pretty thing, a silver necklace. As he puts it on he’s ordered to stop by his father, who growls, “You’re not a faggot.”

I’ve always been fascinated by New Zealand’s traditional understanding of masculinity, how the toxic traits of masculinity manifest and are deepened almost subconsciously by many of our men. It’s through this lens that I found Savage to be remarkably astute. What would the men in this film find if they underwent therapy, or if they allowed any kind of softness or kindness into their lives?

It’s striking that, for characters living in the 80s, so many of the damaging hyper-masculine traits the Savages demonstrate – their posturing and paranoia – are likely to resonate with modern-day viewers. It’s easy to forget what a suffocating fug this performance of traditional masculinity creates in our atmosphere – for men like the ones in my dad’s generation who never had the language to express their vulnerability and were encouraged to crush it underfoot. Even the men of my generation, especially the ones from all-boys schools, unable to process a period of their lives where rote ideas of what it is to be a man were hammered in despite their increasing unviability to the world at large. Men for whom women are prizes to be won, or obstacles to overcome, or an alien species. Savage is profoundly aware of how the ghosts of men from generations now past continue to act as agitators through the years, and captures how difficult it is to break those cycles, how it can feel like a profound betrayal to your moral code.

The fear of queerness is baked into Savage as it is in a Kiwi society where the line between masculinity and homoerotic tension has always been thin.

The fear of queerness is baked into Savage as it is in a Kiwi society where the line between masculinity and homoerotic tension has always been thin. To the men of Danny’s father’s generation, being a ‘faggot’ is the worst fate imaginable, a brand of weakness that sticks. It is a terrible twist of fate, then, that Danny is consigned to a boys’ home, where he faces routine sexual abuse from at least one man purportedly assigned to his care. In a remarkable scene between Young Danny and Moses, Danny expresses his greatest fear – that ingrained fear of weakness – before any kind of rage against his perpetrators. “I didn’t try to stop it,” Danny explains. There is enormous sadness in the fact that the tenderness his abuser showed to him, the only tenderness he ever experienced from a man, will forever be hopelessly muddled with the hideousness of his abuse. Moses responds that just because he didn’t try to fight it doesn’t make him gay, but it’s a wound that Danny carries all the way through to adulthood. Danny cops any number of attacks throughout the film, but it’s when he’s on the receiving end of a cry of ‘faggot’ that he flies into his most unstoppable rage and violence, slipping into a fugue state.

That violence is most memorably acted out on his younger brother Liam, who resurfaces in the middle section of the film, set in the 70s, as a teenage Danny and Moses establish the Savages and reforge the violence they’ve been taught by the generation before them. Liam belongs to a rival gang, and the brothers’ years-in-the-making reunion is muddied by tensions between the two allegiances. In a notable scene, Danny comes the closest he’s ever been able to speaking of his abuse to someone other than Moses, as he sits on the beach (a site of healing here as it is in Moonlight) with his brother. “If you knew who I really was, you wouldn’t want anything to do with me,” he says, suggesting deep shame over what was inflicted upon him. Later, as tensions come to a head between the two gangs, and Danny puts his allegiance to Moses and the Savages before his brother, Liam calls him a ‘faggot’, and that same violence is triggered on him, one of many ‘point of no return’ moments in Savage.

It’s the lasting sense that something needs to change that sticks in the mind

The film presents traditional Kiwi masculinity as a one-way street, with the only destination being a place of loneliness, violence and alienation. The only way to escape that damnation is through the breaking of the cycle and the withholding of that same damage to the generations that come after. I thought of my dad, of some of my friends – complex, emotional men who have always struggled with the need to express their hurt and vulnerability.

I thought, too, of myself, and the long journey I’ve had to go on to find peace with my own pain, my own vulnerability. I have the look of a tougher man – big, broad, fat and tall – than I regularly feel I am. It’s that lack of traditional masculine instinct (and, probably, muscles) that got me labelled a ‘BFN’ (Big-For-Nothing) at school, and continues to inspire the occasional jab from other men for wanting to do ‘ladies’ jobs’ like writing and art. It’s the reason why my therapist recently prescribed me a book called Fatherless Sons. These aren’t remarkable instances of the way traditional Kiwi masculinity eats away at our men, but they’re certainly of a piece – and in a country where astonishing numbers of men consider and commit suicide, it’s the lasting sense that something needs to change that sticks in the mind when considering Savage.

In this light, it’s been dispiriting to hear – anecdotally – some receive the ending of Savage as ‘weak’ or ‘unsatisfying’. Without spoiling too much, the film finally sees the tensions between Danny and Moses come to a head, and a crucial step is made toward rescuing younger generations from that same trap. For many viewers, men especially, the lurking expectation may be that the film will culminate in some kind of hideously violent denouement, and so the fact that Danny turns and walks away rather than reacting viciously to one last utterance of ‘faggot’ directed his way is some kind of small victory. It’s a shame if it goes unnoticed.

The film’s final scene is raw emotion, a cathartic moment of homecoming amplified by a splash of colour – the pink of a blossom tree in the background standing out, the only instance of such a bright, pretty colour in the entire film.

Savage is by no means perfect. Its dourness and cruelty, while purposeful, can be somewhat exhausting, and like many New Zealand films its scale is undercut by an underfunded budget that probably needed another million to really achieve its ambitions, particularly in its period detail. But Savage joins the ranks of other recent New Zealand films like Waru, Stray and Maui’s Hook that address the glaring problems with the way we raise and treat our men – and more specifically the way they treat each other – with sorely needed ambition and complexity. Savage is already something of a success in New Zealand, winning the box office over big-budget films like Tenet in its opening weeks and winning awards overseas. One hopes that it may inspire some moments of vulnerability in the men who watch it.

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The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.

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