Film Review: The Dark Horse

Cliff Curtis gives a stirring performance as a troubled chess prodigy working with kids in this inspirational drama from New Zealand.
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A movie about playing chess may not seem like the most enticing or thrilling movie-viewing prospect, as proven by last year’s Pawn Sacrifice, about one of the most famous chess players, Bobby Fischer. The Dark Horse, based on a documentary (but not to be confused with an upcoming horseracing doc simply called Dark Horse), is not just about chess, offering far more dramatic depth then just being about trying to prevent your king from being captured.

We first meet its protagonist, Genesis “Gen” Pontini (Cliff Curtis), as he walks through the rain into an antiques shop where he becomes fascinated by a chessboard in the window. A former speed-chess prodigy as a child, Gen suffered from stress and mental disorders that got him committed to an institution with a regular regimen of meds, which he’s gone off of when we first meet him.  He’s soon released into the care of his older brother (Wayne Hapi), who leads a Maori crime gang. Knowing that he could be back at the institution with another outburst, Gen decides to do something positive by tutoring troubled neighborhood kids in a local chess club, hoping to take the “Eastern Knights” to a tournament in Auckland. Meanwhile, Gen’s nephew Mana (James Rolleston) is set to be inducted into his father’s gang, a violent initiation that forces the teen to run away from home, giving Gen another project.

Although The Dark Horse was released in its native New Zealand in the summer of 2014 and premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival a few months later, it’s taken some time for its U.S. distributor Broad Green to release the movie, sadly with very little fanfare, since it’s a stirring and inspirational drama the likes of which we normally only see during the fall.

As yet another film “based on a true story,” it could easily have gone horribly awry in the wrong hands, because actors playing characters with mental issues often run into the danger of going too far into stereotypes. Instead, the subject matter is in capable hands with one of New Zealand’s lesser-known filmmakers, James Napier Robertson, assembling an impressive array of talent, with Curtis and Kirk Torrance being the most experienced.

There’s no question this is Curtis’ film to showcase his talents at creating a compelling protagonist that keeps us invested. Sporting a horrific haircut and even worse teeth, he fashions a joyfully entertaining character that’s able to support some of the film’s most dramatic scenes with first-time actor Hapi and the only slightly more experienced Rolleston, sometimes with just a look. Those scenes are counterbalanced by the lighter ones between Gen and the kids cast as the Eastern Knights, all of whom are quite precocious and each offering their own personalities, with at least one true chess-playing prodigy among them.

Robertson’s adaptation of Gen’s real story is quite wonderful, with strong dialogue that’s only slightly marred by the mangled mix of heavily accented English and Maori that requires the viewer to rely on the subtitles.The film’s R rating is due to language, as the gang members tend to throw the F-bomb around a lot, and there is inherent violence in their parts of the film.

What keeps the film so interesting is that it’s as much about Mana’s journey as it is about Gen’s, and in that sense, chess is used more as a plot device to move the film forward as it explores Gen’s redemption through his nephew. The urban New Zealand setting and Maori characters helps establish an environment full of characters we haven’t seen in many films, which also helps it feel original and unique.

A beautiful and truly inspirational film from beginning to end, The Dark Horse may not get the attention it truly deserves, which is a shame, because it’s a hidden gem well worth tracking down.

Click here for cast and crew information.