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Review: Savage – “A brutal and unflinching film”

Savage is Sam Kelly’s directorial feature-length debut. It tells the story of Danny, a senior member of the New Zealand based Savages street gang. He acts as the gang’s unpopular but respected enforcer. He is brutal in his methods and is without mercy. The film takes place over three pivotal periods in his life and tells of how he came to be a member of the notorious street gang. It examines the choices made between his biological family and his adopted gang family. As his loyalty to the gang is tested against his guilt and desire to reconcile with the people who truly love and care for him, Danny must decide what he truly wants in life, if he survives.

The film brilliantly examines toxic masculinity and what drives someone to want to join such a brutal gang. Throughout his early life, Danny is rejected and abused by his fundamentally religious father, who brutalises the family, then by the borstal system into which he is placed for a petty crime. There, he finds guards and carers to be either physically or sexually abusive. He is befriended by Moses, another of life’s outcasts who appears to be much tougher than Danny. The film does well to build a genuine friendship between the two despite the challenges of the violent gang code they have decided to live their life by. So much is said by the two of them when not speaking and in their silences.

It is interesting that in such a male-dominated film, the two strongest characters are women and this speaks volumes about what Kelly is trying to say. Danny’s mother (Renee Lyons), although for most of her screen time is silent and stares downwards in capitulation when her husband is in the room, is her children’s world. The scene where she lies on the floor to sing them all to sleep as they lie around her is both heartbreaking and a testament to the unfathomable strength some women have been forced to draw upon by such horrific and evil men.

The other and perhaps most interesting section of the film involving a female character is when Danny attempts to bed Flo (Charlie Preston). When she takes control of the situation, telling Danny exactly what she wants him to do and how to do it, he is unable to handle it and the muscle-bound hulk of a man is reduced to a pathetic lump, unable to do anything that could be deemed sensitive or normal.

The performances of the younger Danny (Olly Presling) and Moses (Haanz Fa’avae-Jackson) are compelling and draw you into a world of alienation and abuse without sensationalism. The borstal scenes are reminiscent of Alan Clarke’s brilliant 1979 Scum and make similar points in terms of an uncaring system leaving boys nowhere to go except further down a dangerous and dark path.

The film is not without flaws and there were scenes where the older Danny is replaced by the younger to heighten the sense of helplessness. But these scenes somewhat laboured the point that there was still a young boy within him. The performance of Jake Ryan as the older Danny, with his tattooed face, masking who he really is, was more than enough to make this point. The metaphor detracted from the reality of the situation and suspended belief.

That small point aside, the film is an excellent condemnation of the cost of belonging to such a gang, uncaring systems that turn a blind eye to abusers and the damage done by men guilty of horrific domestic abuse. It is a brutal and unflinching film that also manages to capture the ties of friendship and lifelong bonds through unconditional family love.

Savage is in UK cinemas on 11th September 2020.

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