‘Savage’ is inspired by stories from New Zealand’s notorious boy’s homes and the early history of New Zealand gangs. It follows Danny across three different stages of his life as he is pushed from and pulled towards his family, and from gang life.
‘Savage’ opens in the 1980s when Danny’s (Jake Ryan) status as gang member has been solidified. What appears to be a scene of camaraderie and playfulness turns to threat when sex is on the cards. As the narrative quickly flashes back to Danny’s childhood (and Olly Presling really impresses here as young Danny), we learn that threat and violence have been a part of his life from early in his youth thanks to his abusive father.
While the gangland world of 1980s New Zealand is interesting, its visual icons including tattoos and dirty denim jackets covered in badges, it’s not all that distinct a macho landscape than we’ve seen in cinema time and again. More harrowing are the scenes of Danny’s childhood, particularly when he’s put in a state-run boy’s home where he and his contemporaries suffer abuse that won’t seem all that far from home. Here, he at least makes friends and allies, but how valuable those relationships are comes into question as Danny enters his teen years.
At this point, actor James Matamua takes over as Danny, but he struggles to hold his own as Haanz Fa'avae-Jackson, who plays his friend Moses (taken over equally impressively by John Tui once the character is an adult), steals every scene. Moses calls his boys “savages”, saying humans are like animals, and should live like beasts without rules, relying on instinct and sticking it to the man who’s trying to keep them down. At this point, Danny’s brother makes a reappearance in his life and he finds his loyalties torn.
‘Savage’ also contains some accomplished musical sequences to counter the violence that punctuates the movie. Generally speaking though, while an accomplished directorial debut (from Sam Kelly), there isn’t much new here – the definition of masculinity and its link to violence is explored, the protagonist tries to separate his identity from that of the father and later father figures, and the question of staying loyal to one’s family or the gang. There's nothing unique about it and while you’ll want to see how it all works out, the ending doesn’t provide much that’s unexpected.