The Dark Horse opens in a torrential rain storm. A figure wrapped in a blanket holds his hands in the air, savouring the storm. In an "Op" shop he sees a chess set, and begins to play at a frenetic pace, mumbling to himself. Soon he is bundled into a Police wagon and taken back to the mental hospital.
This factually based story is about Genesis, played by Cliff Curtis. A chess champion who has become mentally ill, Genesis is released into the care of his brother, a bikie gang leader, who wants his teenage son Mana to be accepted into the gang. Genesis has other ideals – he wants to take the local kid's chess club and Mana to the national championships in Auckland.
Genesis comes to life as he teaches the kids, using Maori legend to bring the board alive. And always he and they are afraid that his mental illness will ruin everything.
This film is no easy fairy story. The darkness and the menace of the gang is palpable and chillingly convincing, reminiscent of "Once Were Warriors". Genesis' brother Ariki, played by Wayne Hapi, rules through fear, and even though, as he talks with his brother, we learn how he became as he is, that in no way lessens the menace.
in a way reminiscent of "Shine" Genesis' mental state makes us worry for him, while becoming fond of him while unsure whether he can keep himself together enough to lead the kids, and help his nephew.
Genesis takes Mani to Auckland without Ariki's knowledge, putting both of them at risk. Will Mani manage to find his way forward without alienating the gang? Will Genesis help the club shine in Auckland? Will his knife-edge health survive?
The film does resolve those questions, but it does much more than that. The superb photography, direction, scripting and acting makes us feel a part of a community tearing itself apart, yet shows us a few people are working their heart out to give a vision to the next generation.
This may well be the best film I've seen from New Zealand, and is certainly one of the best films I've seen in 2014.