Film Review: The Dead Lands (★★★)

The-Dead-lands-poster-2There is no place for peace. These are the words uttered by the main atagonist Wirepa (Te Kohe Tuhaka), in one of the opening scenes of Toa Fraser’s The Dead Lands. The statement is a strong indicator of what’s to come, as the film takes us on an action-packed ride with its depiction of an epic tribal conflict.

The events of the film begin with an act of treachery. A warmonger named Wirepa dishonors the bones of his own ancestors – a major offence in New Zealand’s Maori culture – and blames it on Hongi (James Rolleston), son of the rival tribe’s chieftain. Hongi professes his innocence and his people believe him, knowing Wirepa’s reputation. With no way of proving guilt however, Wirepa seizes the opportunity to reignite a long-standing conflict between the two tribes. Later that night, Wirepa leads a massacre of Hongi’s family and people, with only Hongi and a scant few left alive. Devastated from the loss and fueled by expectations as the new leader of the tribe, Hongi must now embark on a revenge mission. His journey will take him through the dangerous Dead Lands, where he manages to team up with a mysterious man they call “The Warrior” (played by Lawrence Makoare). After a crash course in hand-to-hand combat, the stage is set for a rumble in the jungle.

As we follow this daring “David and Goliath” mission, Hongi quickly becomes a hero we want to root for. In a world where cannibalism is the norm rather than the exception, this is no easy task. Through Rolleston’s mild-mannered performance however, the character is humanized to a large degree, revealing a gentle soul forced into extraordinary circumstances.

But the best performance really belongs to Tuhaka as the bloodthirsty Wirepa. Armed with a devious smirk and prone to explosive rage, Tuhaka finds the ideal balance between bad boy charisma and genuine menace that makes for a great villain. Particularly on the battlefield, he makes for an exciting foil for Rolleston and Makoare.

The action all leads up to a final, bloody showdown that delivers some big thrills. In getting there however, the screenplay follows a fairly predictable revenge narrative. Fraser’s direction does set the film apart though, applying a distinct air of mysticism and spirituality. Drawing from the real-life beliefs of Maori people and their reverence for the dead, he creates a chilling, haunted atmosphere. The ideas of blood honor and the presence of spirits are evocatively conveyed through the sound design and cinematography, especially in the fanciful dream sequences where characters converse with the dead.
These thematic elements add insightful sociocultural context, but the high-energy action sequences remain as the main attraction. Fraser pulls no punches as he ramps up the intensity with the aid of an awesome score, and sound effects that make the extreme brutality feel all the more visceral. With the increasing popularity of unique martial arts films from the Asia-Pacific region (e.g. The Raid franchise), The Dead Lands should have no trouble attracting a captive audience.

The Dead Lands releases in select theaters April 17, 2015.