A quietly powerful and dignified performance from Cliff Curtis is the heart of Tearepa Kahi’s New Zealand action-thriller Muru: a film that’s in no way quiet or subtle, and not intended to be. Curtis plays Taffy Tāwharau, the kind of cop who is, as they say, one of the good guys, filling in as a school bus driver and standing up to racist and misinformed colleagues.
Taffy is torn between different worlds and laws: his Māori heritage and remote Te Urewera community on one hand, and on the other, the uniform and badge to which he’s sworn allegiance. Australian film-makers have explored similar tensions recently in productions including True Colours and Mystery Road.
Taffy’s level-headedness, decency and instinctive resistance to extreme or irrational responses provides the message that not all police officers are “bad.” At the same time, the film is overlaid with powerful polemical commentary: about the police force as a diabolical political weapon and a reflection of the ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples.
The film – which has been selected as New Zealand’s international feature submission for the Oscars after premiering at Toronto film festival earlier this year – was inspired by real-life events such as the 2007 Urewera raids, during which police raided the community of the Tūhoe people in New Zealand’s north island under the mistaken belief that activist and artist Tāme Iti was building a domestic terrorist network.
The camera initially floats above a swampy forest, ensconced in thick white fog, reminiscent of a Vicki Madden production. Kahi then presents four title cards interspersed with short dramatic footage. The first draws a historical connection: “In 1916, the NZ government raided the people of Tūhoe and their prophet Rua Kēnana.” The second announces: “In 2007, the NZ government raided the people of Tūhoe and the activist Tame Iti.” The third is a disclaimer – “this film is not a recreation of the police raids against the people of Tūhoe” – and the fourth, after a dramatic pause, proclaims: “It is a response.”
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Perhaps that caveat was necessary because Muru is certainly presented in a re-enactment style: not jittery and frantic, like a Paul Greengrass film, but with an on-the-ground energy aspiring for gritty realism, notwithstanding some action movie tropes here and there. Certain elements seem intended to heighten verisimilitude and strengthen the film’s connection to real-life events – such as the casting of Iti as himself.
By stating upfront that it’s not a reenactment, the director lessens expectations of sticking to the facts. And by citing the 1916 raids as an additional inspiration, he draws a throughline across history in a rumination on police oppression both symbolic and rooted in painful actuality. The idea of a film crossing the space-time continuum to make statements about the impact of colonialism on Indigenous populations was powerfully evoked in the recent anthology drama We Are Still Here.
Kahi oscillates between the elite forces organising the raid and quieter moments with Taffy in the remote Rūātoki valley, where he’s taking care of his sick father (who is friends with Iti). This builds a stop-start momentum, the director simultaneously building and undercutting tension. There’s no doubt that things are headed in the direction of climactic action, much of which is well-staged; Chris Mauger and Fred Renata’s cinematography strikes a good balance between stylised compositions and a rougher, edgier look.
Other elements are less impressive. An important event one hour into the runtime boils down to a misunderstanding, but the staging is unclear and it left me wondering whether it was deliberately or accidentally ambiguous. And while Curtis delivers an excellent, nuanced performance in his portrayal of a cop trying to manage an impossible situation, the elite police characters are more simplistic – at times approaching cartoonish. Manu Bennett might as well have worn an eye patch for his rage-consumed performance as the twisted and tough-as-nails Sergeant Kimiora; it doesn’t feel genuine.
The same can be said of some aspects of Kahi’s direction. He can’t resist showing a police officer performing a commando roll in one scene, and in another two characters fall out of a helicopter, both moments airlifted in from the multiplex action playground. It’s hard to incorporate these kinds of flourishes while still retaining a sense of realism and immediacy.
Kahi comes admirably close, though, and uses poetic licence – as well an arsenal of techniques from the action and thriller genres – for a noble purpose: speaking truth to power. Despite the spectacle, it’s the human faces, particularly Curtis’, that will linger most vividly.