The Dark Horse is a meeting of the minds—A Beautiful Mind and Dangerous Minds, that is. Though based on a real-life story, writer-director James Napier Robertson’s film plays like a mash-up of Hollywood clichés, recounting the efforts of a mentally unstable genius to right his wayward life by mentoring a collection of disadvantaged kids. Through that mission, he’s also given the chance to help save his nephew from the clutches of the boy’s father, a biker gang leader who wants his offspring to join the rebel outfit so he can have a family should anything prevent the man—ominous [cough cough] alert—from continuing to fulfill his parental duties.
Winner of virtually every major award (Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, Actor, Supporting Actor and Score) at the 2014 New Zealand Film Awards, The Dark Horse recounts the uplifting tale of Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), a gifted Maori chess player who’s introduced wrapped in a colorful blanket and wandering the rain-drenched streets of a small town, and into a local shop where he becomes entranced with a chess board. While his incessant muttering to himself about game moves isn’t intimidating, it still gets him recommitted to the local psych ward, from which he’s extricated by his brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi), a giant, dreadlocked biker club bigwig who has Genesis stay at his ramshackle home. There, he’s given the room previously occupied by his nephew Mana (James Rolleston), a teenager who talks tough to Genesis but who seems more than a bit miserable about becoming a member of dad’s posse—especially since a fellow biker thug revels in humiliating him.
Uncomfortable staying at his brother’s place, Genesis (who, it turns out, is bipolar, and needs meds to stay mentally steady) soon takes to sleeping beneath an outdoor hilltop monument. He also starts to leads a local youth chess club comprised of kids who know little about the game, and who—from the looks of things—don’t have many hopeful prospects. Unfortunately, The Dark Horse doesn’t even cursorily sketch these younger characters; they come across as mere plot-device ornamentation, designed only to reflect or complicate Genesis’ redemptive path. The fact that Mana soon joins the team gives Genesis even more motivation to follow through on his promise to make his youthful charges state champs. However, Mana’s participation in this group seems dully contrived—as does the tension that arises between Genesis and Ariki over Mana, the former wanting the boy to embrace chess as a productive outlet for his energy, and Ariki desperate to have the kid become part of his outlaw tribe before he succumbs to mounting health problems.
Revealing that development might qualify as a spoiler were it not for the fact The Dark Horse cares not for narrative ingenuity. Its drama composed of little more than crazy-prodigy and saving-poor-kids-from-crime conventions, The Dark Horse almost immediately reveals its formulaic colors. Robertson’s direction is consistently capable and understated, but at two-plus hours, his film simply doesn’t have enough material to sustain any genuine momentum. Thus, by the time Genesis takes his players to a competition—where their plights are rendered moot simply because we don’t know any of them in the first place—the proceedings have grown severely stale.
That’s a shame considering that, as Genesis, Cliff Curtis (most recently seen on AMC’s Fear the Walking Dead) delivers a magnetic performance that reconfirms his status as one of the most underutilized—and underappreciated—actors working today. Boasting a hefty gut, a mouth full of crooked (and missing) teeth, and a head that’s shaved save for a patch of hair on the back part of his skull, Curtis inhabits Genesis with a madness that’s superficially defined by ticks—rapid muttering, enthusiastic outbursts, lots of fidgeting and head-scratching—but which is rooted in a confused sorrow that permanently resides in his eyes. Curtis’ exterior mannerisms never feel like less than natural manifestations of his inner turmoil. Especially during the film’s first half, his turn gives The Dark Horse a welcome dose of anxious volatility—and though he can’t salvage its later, seen-this-all-before developments, he remains a commanding, complex center of attention throughout.
Director: James Napier Robertson
Writer: James Napier Robertson
Starring: Cliff Curtis, Wayne Hapi, James Rolleston, Kirk Torrance
Release Date: April 1, 2016