The Dead Lands

| August 4, 2015

For years, two Native American tribes have lived peacefully after a war that nearly wiped them both out.  But now, the son of one of the cheifs wishes to reignite the conflict and wipe out his enemies by framing the son of their chief for desecrating a burial ground.  Armed with his deception, Wirepa (Te Kohe Tahuka) leads his men in an ambush of Hongi’s (James Rolleston) tribe, ultimately leaving Hongi alone and thirsty for revenge.  Unprepared to take on Wirepa and his men, Hongi enlists the help of “The Warrior” (Lawrence Makoare) to train him.  The Warrior is also the last of his tribe, labeled as a monster and cannibal, which to be fair is true.  Hongi must learn to fight and lead and even traverse the land of the dead to bring honor to his ancestors.

The story is pretty good.  I was never bored by Hongi’s Romantic quest to become a warrior and seek his revenge.  The parallels between him and the warrior, as well as Wirepa himself gave the story a structural integrity that was appreciated.  I also appreciated the authentic Native American language the actors spoke throughout to further isolate the audience firmly in pre-colonial America.  I have to admit I don’t know much about Native American culture, but I know it’s all the more difficult because each tribe had their own individual culture and beliefs, but something about this struck me as inaccurate.  Maybe yo mama jokes and homophobic humor was commonplace in Native American culture, but it struck me as a more contemporary device that took me out of the period of the film.  It made the characters’ savagery feel more stereotypical than genuine, but again I don’t know.

Beyond my questioning the film’s authenticity, I did enjoy it.  The story held together well, the acting was all good with some odd exceptions like Makoare sticking out his tongue as a means of intimidation.  I didn’t care for the Wirepa character, who had no complexity at all.  He’s the villain, so he does villain things because villain.  There’s no clue as to why he chose this day to reignite the war between his people and Hongi’s, and nothing to establish his motivations throughout the rest of the film.

The strangest thing to me here was the characters literally talking to the dead.  The Warrior shows Hongi a type of mushroom that his wives eat and commune with the dead.  Now, this could be chalked up to hallucination, except at one point the warrior calls on his ancestors to slow down Wirepa and his men and it actually happens when they’re struck by a mysterious and sudden illness.  Treating the spirit world as fact and allowing the characters to actually interact with it in an otherwise perfectly realistic movie again makes me question the film’s authenticity. 

Special features include several behind the scenes featurettes, the Q&A from the film’s theatrical premiere, and an interview with James Cameron for some reason.  Available now on Blu-ray from Magnet Films. 

About the Author:

Joe Sanders Joe Sanders is a podcaster, playwright, and college instructor in Kalamazoo, MI. He has a master's degree in playwriting and a bachelor's degree in creative writing from Western Michigan University, where he currently teaches thought and writing, and is the host of the Quote Unquote Guilty podcast, part of the Word Salad Network.
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