Review by Sean Boelman
Having been selected as the submission to represent New Zealand in the Best International Film race at this year’s Oscars, Tearepa Kahi’s Muru presents itself as a police thriller, but there’s so much more to it. Even though the film doesn’t hit all of its ambitious swings, there is something undeniably effective about it.
The film tells the story of a New Zealand Police Sergeant who is forced to choose between his duty and his community when he is ordered to launch a raid on his community in the middle of a school day. While using a police officer as the protagonist of a film about police brutality may seem like a questionable choice, Kahi focuses it in such a way that it feels very natural.
The film opens with a title card that reads “these are not the opinions of the New Zealand police,” however, the film is inspired by a series of true raids that happened in the Te Urewera valley. It very much peels back the curtain on an important issue that is in need of discussion and has unfortunately not yet received the spotlight it demands because of the world’s tendency to ignore Indigenous issues.
Movies that deal with morally ambiguous cops can be a bit of a tricky line to tread, especially in this day and age, but Kahi manages to pull it off mostly successfully. The film may not be as starkly anti-cop as one would hope, but it’s certainly not the type of “copaganda” audiences may have grown accustomed to.
Cliff Curtis does an amazing job in the lead role, bringing a lot of complexity to this character. Obviously, the role requires quite a bit of range to show the character’s internal dilemma. It’s some of the best work of his career, largely defined by supporting performances, but it will be exciting to see if this turn earns him more leading roles.
Something else notable about the film is that it features the legendary real-life activist Tame Iti in a significant supporting role. It adds a feeling of legitimacy to the film because Ite is one of the most prominent people fighting for Indigenous rights in New Zealand. Even though this is a somewhat fictionalized, popcorn movie take on the topic, Ite’s involvement shows that it is also something to be taken seriously.
That said, Kahi does a great job of shooting the film in a way that is enjoyable and suspenseful. There’s a lot going on in the film between the different storylines, but it is edited in a way that is kinetic and exciting. The action is largely done in a very gritty way, emphasizing the realism and making everything hit harder.
Considering the way it sounds on paper, Muru is quite the accomplishment. An underdog film presenting some of the best Indigenous representation that has happened in the history of New Zealand cinema, this is a film to keep an eye out for.
Muru screened at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which ran September 8-18.