Savage, a dark descent into New Zealand gangland

Written by Jonathan Mahon-Heap

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One hundred minutes of Savage spans 30 years, inspired by the true stories of New Zealand’s street gangs.

In Savage, director Sam Kelly’s debut feature, hammers are used to destroy and disfigure, though gang leader Danny (Jake Ryan) is looking to make amends. A generation-sweeping tale of toxic masculinity and the ties that bind, Savage, opening in cinemas 27 August nationwide, is a character study within the trappings of a gangster flick. It revisits some of our country’s darkest chapters, and hopes we will stare headlong into the abyss. 

On its film festival debut, Variety dubbed it “Sons of Anarchy on foot”, but Savage is more Once Were Warriors on Xanax, as Kelly’s focus lays bare the psychology of the gang mindset. It tells the story of Danny and his best friend, Moses (John Tui); survivors of the boys’ institutions, shackled together by the memories of their trauma, taking us, in Kelly’s words, “to the emerging urban gang scene in the 70s, where disenfranchised teenagers created their own families on the streets; to the 80s, when gangs became more structured, criminal, and violent.” 

What makes a gang? The film dissects the ways a subculture is pulled together, stoked on a diet of toxic masculinity, and intergenerational trauma. In doing so, Savage hopes to tunnel itself out from beneath the spectre of Once Were Warriors; to-date, a shorthand for this genre of story, in both cinema and culture. With echoes of Scorsese, but heralding a distinct new voice in New Zealand cinema, it’s clear with Savage that Kelly is trying to build something new.

Savage is released in cinemas nationwide on 27 August, 2020. Watch the trailer here.


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