Cliff Curtis turns in a weighty performance opposite Tāme Iti as himself in this bold, tense and potent response to the Tūhoe raids.
October 07, 2022
Defiant, powerful and passionate at every turn, Muru depicts a relentless police raid on New Zealand's Rūātoki community. Equally alive with anger, the Aotearoan action-thriller and drama shows law enforcement storming into the district to apprehend what's incorrectly deemed a terrorist cell, but is actually activist and artist Tāme Iti — playing himself — and his fellow Tūhoe people. If October 2007 springs to mind while watching, it's meant to. Written and directed by Poi E: The Story of Our Song and Mt Zion filmmaker Tearepa Kahi, this isn't a mere dramatisation of well-known events, however. There's a reason that Muru begins by stamping its purpose on the screen, and its whole rationale for existing: "this film is not a recreation… it is a response". That the feature's name is also taken from a Māori process of redressing transgressions is both telling and fitting as well.
Kahi's film is indeed a reaction, a reply, a counter — and a way of processing past wrongs. In a fashion, it's Sir Isaac Newton's third law of motion turned into cinema, because a spate of instances across New Zealand over a century-plus has sparked this on-screen answer. Muru's script draws from 15 years back; also from the police shooting of Steven Wallace in Waitara in 2000 before that; and from the arrest of Rua Kēnana in Maungapōhatu even further ago, in 1916. While the movie finds inspiration in the screenplay Toa by Jason Nathan beyond those real-life events, it's always in dialogue with things that truly happened, and not just once, and not only recently. If every action causes an opposite reaction, Muru is Kahi's way of sifting through, rallying against and fighting back after too many occasions where the long arm of the NZ law, and of colonialism, has overreached.
Played by Cliff Curtis (Reminiscence) with the brand of command that he's long been known for — and with the unshakeable presence that's served him through everything from The Piano, Once Were Warriors and Whale Rider through to The Dark Horse, Fear the Walking Dead and Doctor Sleep — Police Sergeant 'Taffy' Tawhara sits at the heart of Rūātoki's us-and-them divide. A local cop, he has the nation's laws to uphold, but he's also beholden to the community he hails from. His homecoming is recent, with his father (Tipene Ohlson) ailing and undergoing dialysis. So far, it has also been quiet. On the day that Muru begins, Taffy drives the school bus, takes the Aunties for medical checkups at the local mobile clinic and does what everyone in the valley does in their own manners: watches out for and tries to support 16-year-old Rusty (Poroaki Merritt-McDonald, Savage), the nephew of fellow officer Blake (Ria Te Uira Paki, The Dead Lands), who has the role of Rūātoki's resident wayward teen down pat.
When Rusty smashes up shop windows that night, Taffy takes the call, then makes Iti's Camp Rama his second stop. A gathering of locals that champions survival skills and Tūhoe culture, it's designed to foster and reinforce the area's identity, which Taffy thinks Rusty can benefit from — even if that evening marks the sergeant's first attendance himself. But Camp Rama has also been under surveillance by the NZ police's special tactics group, with haughty leader Gallagher (Jay Ryan, The Furnace) and his quick-tempered second-in-command Kimiora (Manu Bennett, The Hobbit) deciding that Iti and his friends are a threat to national security. The highly armed tactical unit descends upon the community the next day, aided behind the scenes by colleagues Maria (Simone Kessell, Obi-Wan Kenobi) and Jarrod (Byron Coll, Nude Tuesday), overseen by an MP (Colin Moy, Guns Akimbo) determined to make a statement, and ignoring Taffy's pleas that their mission is mistaken.
From the outset, Kahi flits between the two halves of Muru's narrative, letting their clash echo from the feature's frames. Daily life in the valley isn't idyllic, but everyone's wellbeing is a communal responsibility, as seen in the way that Blake pitches in to help with pāpā while Taffy is out driving, as well as the fondness shown for Rusty by school kids and elders alike. Among law enforcement, displaying force and strength rather than flexibility or care is the only focus — to explosive ends once the raid starts. His film isn't subtle, but Kahi proves both unflinching and perceptive in contrasting empathy with its utter absence. A case in point: the evocatively shot (by cinematographers Chris Mauger, Herb — Songs of Freedom, and Fred Renata, Dawn Raid) and tensely edited (by Hacksaw Ridge Oscar-winner John Gilbert) moments when the cops surround the school bus, tracking Rusty on his horse. The children see ninjas, the adults see life changing forever and the police simply see targets.
If Muru didn't come layered with real-life context and a wealth of history, it'd still make for taut, intense and gripping viewing; as an action-thriller, it's sharp, tightly wound and skilfully executed, and teems with lively chases — by foot, car, horse and air alike — as well as loaded confrontations. Undercutting IRL trauma by boiling it down to a Hollywood formula isn't Kahi's intention, though, or the end result that pulsates across the screen. Muru is all the more riveting because it's so deeply felt, so steeped in generations of shattering violence, and so willing to ponder what compassion and justice truly mean. It also bubbles with the sensation that the movie wouldn't even need to exist in a better world, because the events that it's interrogating wouldn't have happened. This is a reckoning on several levels, including with that truth.
As set against Rūātoki's scenic greenery, Muru is always a complicated picture, clearly — and that includes its choice to work in fiction instead of remaining glued to facts. Sometimes, though, spinning a story rather than sticking to actuality can be more potent, more emotionally authentic, and also brim with more feeling, as it instantly does here. Of course, there's no avoiding Iti, the feature's constant reminder that reality underscores even Muru's most imaginative narrative leaps. As himself, he's one part of a fine-tuned cast — weighty performances by Curtis, Merritt-McDonald, Ryan and Kessell stand out — but he's also Muru's beacon. Fury, understanding, hope, honouring the past, striving for a different future: in this dynamic film and in Iti's eyes, they all both ripple and linger.
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