The past few years hit everyone hard. Both a pandemic and political strife seems to have turned the world upside down, and the new year doesn’t look any more promising. Yet, in troubled times like this, it’s important to remember that some have it significantly harder, no matter in which times they live. There has always been a dark underworld eager to consume the innocent, and there always will be.
Sam Kelly’s film Savage reminds us of this hard fact. In exploring the life of a New Zealand gangbanger, Kelly’s film is every bit as raw and unnerving as any crime drama – but its power lies in its message of sin and redemption.
Savage is broken down into three parts: 1965, 1972, and 1989. The film follows Danny, played by Olly Presling as a child, James Matamua as a teenager, and Jake Ryan as an adult. Danny’s journey from a troubled child to a vicious gangbanger is documented in a somewhat visceral fashion. We see his first dabbling in petty crime as a child, which leads him to a reformatory school that ultimately transforms boys into misfit monsters. Danny’s journey continues well into his teens, where he helps establish a criminal gang called the Savages. We’re not told what the gang’s enterprise consists of, other than they’re brutes shunned by society and – likewise – turning their anger towards society at large. By 1989, he is a battle-hardened gangbanger committed to a life of crime.
At the same time, Danny retains a thread of humanity.
As an adult, Danny is ruthless and cold blooded in his style. He has no problem whacking people with hammers or busting windows to commit acts of theft. However, in private, he is nervous and even remorseful of his heinous crimes. He dwells on his choices and continually reflects on them, showing a degree of humility often overlooked in many films of this genre. There is no glitz and glamor that one might find with, say, Scarface. In exploring this humble dimension to Danny’s character, Kelly saves his film from being an exploitation flick or a sensationalist cash grabber. The atmosphere is dreary and dirty, as it is in a literal underworld.
Likewise, the key ingredient to this film’s power is the use of atmosphere. Danny’s journey as a criminal is often shrouded in darkness. He’s taken through back alleys, dimly lit houses, and even rooms designed for solitary confinement. People are either reduced to shadows or have features hidden in the absence of any light. They become monsters in a sense, and without any light, even a hardened criminal like Danny becomes vulnerable. There’s a degree of hopelessness in this particular setting, which propels criminals such as Danny to take refuge in their lifestyle.
However, softer moments are often given their treatment in the sun. From innocent child to hardened criminal, Danny’s journey follows a pattern of daylight, which gradually dims as he gets older and becomes a criminal. As Danny goes to confront his past as an adult, he re-emerges into the sunlight again. Danny is stocky with tattoos covering his face, but we see his eyes and the emotions that he can no longer hide. The monstrous savage, in this case, becomes a human being.
In essence, the film is mainly about the threshold between light and darkness. Some are able to stay in the light, while others are consumed by the dark evil that is always in the shadows. This is something we all experience, and the use of these transitions on Kelly’s part is a powerful tool in helping us bond with Danny.
Savage is ultimately a sobering watch for those seeking a glimmer of hope with all that has happened in recent years. Jake Ryan in particular gives a masterful portrayal of an individual who, though consumed by anger, still harnesses an innocent light deep within. It is quite difficult to watch an individual fall from grace, but it is all the more inspiring to watch an individual try to find a light in the darkness.
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Savage tells the gritty story of a young man's descent into crime. Through the use of effective lighting and atmosphere, Sam Kelly takes us through the ups and downs of the protagonist's life, all the while giving a powerful message about overcoming the darkest moments of our past.
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