It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
I have a soft spot for sports movies where an underdog comes up from behind, culminating in a moment of pure triumph. The genre can be hokey or sentimental, but there is an underlying power and inspiration in those cliches. "The Dark Horse" is a great example. Based on the true story of Maori speed-chess master Genesis Potini, and directed by James Napier Robertson, it's a feel-good story with the potential to make you feel great. What makes it unique is the Maori background, the atmosphere of poverty and violence in the community, a people marked by the genocide perpetrated upon them. In that environment, chess becomes not only a life-saver for kids who are born into inherited hopelessness, but also a metaphor for strategies on how to get through life. Strategy combats chaos, strategy focuses people on one goal, and with strategy, winning is actually possible. That's what "The Dark Horse" is all about.
Genesis Potini is the center of "The Dark Horse," (his nickname in the chess world) and the film is as much a character study as anything else. Potini had a bipolar diagnosis (treated realistically in the film with not a whiff of condescension or grandstanding), and spent his life in and out of hospitals, with short jail stints for vagrancy. He was a phenom-prodigy at chess, winning competitions, and eventually helping form a chess club for underprivileged kids in his community called The Eastern Knights (the organization still exists today; Potini died in 2011). Potini's older brother taught him how to play chess when they were kids, presenting the different chess pieces as nearly-mythological figures with special powers. Chess was a way for them to access the pride of their culture and history, the fact that they all "once were warriors." It is a militaristic game played by two people, but what happens on the board is a group event, and that was how Potini viewed the game.
Genesis is portrayed by wonderful character actor, Cliff Curtis, so unforgettable in the Maori dramas "Once Were Warriors" and "Whale Rider," as well as in small roles in "Three Kings," "Training Day" and "The Insider." (Currently, Curtis can be seen stealing AMC's "Fear the Walking Dead.") The actor has an imposing lumbering presence, reminiscent of Lee J. Cobb, and a malleable face. In "The Dark Horse," he returns to New Zealand to take on one of the best roles in his career. As the toothless Genesis he is ruminative, gentle, often detached from surrounding events, but when he plays chess he is a ferocious competitor who can see six or seven moves ahead.
"The Dark Horse" opens with a dream-like sequence in which Genesis, in the grip of manic hallucinations, staggers down the middle of a street in the rain, heading into a "curios" store as though by appointment. There's an old-fashioned chess set on display, and Genesis stands over it, dripping rainwater onto the board, playing a game against himself as the well-dressed, white customers stand back, watching. Genesis is taken off to jail for disturbing the peace, and then released into the custody of his older brother, Ariki (Wayne Hapi). Ariki is entrenched in Maori gang-culture, the house filled with scary-looking drunk tattooed guys who stare at Genesis with contempt.