“Broken” movie review – ‘Once Were (religious) Warriors’

There is a great film within Broken. It wants to be free to tell a compelling story of violence, revenge, redemption and forgiveness – all themes that are well conveyed throughout its 97-minute runtime. Boasting a largely first time cast there are rough edges, but an emotional core that is full of good intentions. The primary issues for pastor-come-filmmaker Tarry Mortlock are dialogue that undercuts the performances of his actors and a theological aspect that stands on the surface of highly problematic territory.

Set in New Zealand and based on the cultural legend of Tarore and her Book, the set-up is well-known throughout narrative storytelling, bordering on the point of cliché – ‘I thought I was out, then they pull me back in’.

For Logan (Joshua Calles), the life of violence and gang warfare lies in a past best left closed. Content to raise daughter Tori (Ruby Grubb) alone following the passing of his wife, he works alongside Coop (Ma’a Brian Sagala) at a local boxing gym where his underlying anger is channelled constructively in the ring. A sense of normality is soon interrupted when former Mad Bulls gang member Murphy (Jol Sparks) appears with a warning of imminent violence directed from the long-feuding Pouakai against Logan.

Initially firm in his refusal to return to the lifestyle that has left him scarred, an attack orchestrated by rival gang leader Cruz (Wayne Hapi, The Dark Horse) pulls Logan back into the fray when the violence results in the death of Tori.

At its best Broken is visually beautiful with an evocating score creating scenes of genuine humanity. The early interactions between Logan and Tori among the ocean waves seek to capture the same life-lasting connection between Juan and Little during the first act of Moonlight, with the use of the natural landscape telling the audience everything they need to know. The structure and emotional arcs throughout the film are established convincingly and for the most part the sought impact hits through. As a cinematic experience there is plenty to recommend, but the issues present cannot go unnoticed.

As a passion project for Tarry Mortlock there is admirability to his willingness to realise a creative vision. Credited as director, writer, producer, casting director and editor, the involvement of outside voices is not completely absent with cinematographer Josh Campbell and stunt coordinator Augie Davis enhancing the film’s overall quality. However, in having a hand in so many aspects of the production stages, there is a sense that given his inexperience more established support would have improved the end result.

The primary issue with the film is the dialogue. It is difficult to pinpoint whether the words as they are written or the way in which they are delivered are to blame. There is a tendency to explain the point of a scene unnecessarily, add words into the mouths of actors when their facial expressions and body language convey what is intended, along with doubting the audience’s intelligence by stating the movie’s themes directly – ‘forgiveness is important’. These criticism are not offered up to completely disparage what Broken is successful in achieving, but it does stand to reason that the two best moments come about when the raw performance of Joshua Calles is not reliant upon speaking.

It is unfortunate for Broken to bare such a close resemblance to the unaddressed elephant in the room, but there is no escaping the similarity it shares with Lee Tamahori’s iconic Once Were Warriors. Much like the 1994 feature rated as the best New Zealand film of all time, Broken deals with issues that while framed in the context of Māori New Zealand transcend culture to resonate with audiences around the world. To pit Joshua Calles against Temuera Morrison is incomparable. Morrison’s portrayal as the violent patriarch Jake ‘The Muss’ Heke is ingrained in recent film history with his hypermasculine presence dominating public perception of the classic film, despite the character having an iota of the depth contained by Rena Owen’s brilliant performance as the domestically abused Beth. For as strong as Calles is as Logan, and there is unquestionably a rough diamond quality in his acting debut, the simmering anger that eventuates into pure rage is derived straight from the legacy of Jake ‘The Muss’.

To draw upon great works as reference points is not inherently wrong; every creative individual is influenced by the world around them and everything that has come before.

Where Broken falls down in comparison to Once Were Warriors and the flawed sequel What Becomes of the Broken Hearted? is the lack of emotional development afforded to Tori during the first act. In filling the archetype skilfully performed by Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell as Gracie in Warriors, the youthful spirit of the sole innocent character is developed to the point that as a result of the violence that permeates her life, by the time the third-act tragedy takes place the devastation for the film’s characters cuts to the very core of the audience. Whereas the manner in which Tori is presented as kind-hearted in a world where violence is merely mentioned, rather than a constant reality, doesn’t carry the dramatic weight it should when her death occurs.

In discussing the depiction of violence another failing of the film is present. It is understandable that in order to gain a theatrical release that is commercially viable the way violence is treated is restrained. However, in distorting the physical impacts of a number of the brutal acts committed, the pacifist philosophy of the film is diminished. While the incongruence of depicting extreme violence while preaching the opposite was levelled against Mel Gibson in Hacksaw Ridge, the visceral effect demonstrated the horror of warfare in a culture that often lionises it. A similar reading could be afforded to the treatment of gangs in Broken, with the decision to present Tori’s murder as a largely untouched corpse and not a blood soaked crime scene resulting in Logan’s lust for vengeance lacking the gruesome reality of a point blank murder. As a culture there is an aversion to showing the real-life impacts of violence in media; this is an issue that has left many baffled with Kirby Dick’s 2005 documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated providing an effective examination on an issue that over a decade later continues to plague contemporary releases. While being understandable, it is nonetheless disappointing to see a film that is interested in genuine human emotions having a failure of nerve when it comes to the dominant dramatic conflict.

While there is plenty to like about Broken along with critiques of the creative choices made, the lingering issue of the film is its association with City Impact Church. Producing the film and prominently featuring a Pentecostal plot element throughout, the overall theme of forgiveness is not incompatible with religion by any means. The issue becomes harder to reconcile considering the opposition of the production company and by association the church depicted in the film regarding the unaddressed subject of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. Advocating against marriage equality, City Impact Church and similar Pentecostal denominations in Australia, such as Hillsong, have put forth a view of ‘God’s Love’ that apparently does not extend to certain individuals.

In recent times prominent members of these churches such as Australian Rugby Union star Israel Folau have made deeply offensive remarks towards the LGBT community under the guise of interpretation of scripture. While it is completely within the parameters of free speech and expression of religion to hold these views, the incongruence of ‘loving the sinner, but not the sin’ is difficult to disassociate from a film where forgiveness and the alleged healing quality of Christianity is on full display.

Such is this presentation that the supporting character of Jess (Corinth Andzue) exists for the sole purpose of pursuing this message. There are certainly real world cases where individuals who have experienced significant hardship and circumstances beyond their control have benefitted from the communal environment of organised religion, yet when Jess declares at Tori’s wake (Tangihanga) that ‘I was going to kill myself until I was saved and forgiven’, the total absence of her character from the remainder of the film can be viewed as nothing short of serving as pure propaganda for City Impact Church.

There is clearly an ideological element to Broken that Mortlock doesn’t harp on in the same way similar films produced by organised religion such as Pure Flix’s God’s Not Dead series base their premise around. Broken is very much ‘story first, faith secondary’, but given the past record of City Impact Church along with the historical use of religion being imposed upon Pacific Islanders during the Blackbirding trade as a means of subjugation, these criticisms are not without justification in reviewing the film.

Ultimately Broken is an admirable labour of love for Tarry Mortlock. At its best there is a well-paced story full of emotional depth and genuine performances worth investing in. There are issues present which do not excuse or condemn the film, rather they provide a context for it to exist within, just as Tarore and her Book does likewise in the film’s creation. In a time where the cinematic landscape is dominated by superheroes and licensed properties, it is refreshing to see a drama invested in genuine human emotional struggle where the outward façade of masculinity finds closure in non-violence.

Broken may not be on par with similar films that deal with the enduring effects of leading a violent life such as last year’s Logan, but if Tarry Mortlock is willing to open himself up to outside voices, there is enough promise shown to suggest there is a future for him as a filmmaker.

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