VOD film review: The Dead Lands
Originality in the plot4
Ian Loring | On 13, Jun 2015
Director: Toa Fraser
Cast: James Rolleston, Lawrence Makoare, Te Kohe Tuhaka
Watch The Dead Lands online in the UK: Apple TV (iTunes) / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play
The Dead Lands was New Zealand’s official selection for Best Foreign Language Feature at this year’s Oscars. Whether that’s a good or bad thing will depend on your point of view. When you think of the films considered for that award in years gone by, you generally think of high-minded, austere pictures, like previous winners Departures, Amour or countless others. That New Zealand put this forward either shows that they just didn’t have any of that kind of product that year or that the people who consider their country’s Oscar potential are lunatics you can get behind.
The Dead Lands is a simple story told in the most brutal and visceral way. The plot, such as it is, concerns a young man (James Rolleston), who seeks revenge on the son of another Maori tribe’s leader for slaughtering his people, including his father. To do so, he enlists the help of a “monster’ known only as The Warrior (Lawrence Makoare), a man who lives in the eponymous Dead Lands and kills anyone who gets in his way. Mayhem ensues.
It is not the work of Michael Haneke here, but the film has James Cameron’s blessing and you can see why with its action played as grittily as possible, all set in an environment filled with talk of honouring your ancestors and the spirits who inhabit it – an Avatar-esque message, only with more blood-letting and fewer blue people.
Special credit here has to go to Stunt/Fight Coordinator Steve McQuillan, who shows us a world of violence which is much about intimidation as it is actual fight moves. The characters hiss, spit and wag their tongues at each other with looks of frenzy etched into their faces, while they circle the ground before them. Their weapons mark out their territory and make each other know that once they unleash their fury, only bloodshed will result. What bloodshed it is, too: lingering on the fatal blows and gore, the film crafts well-choreographed sequences, which have more impact than you generally find, thanks to the legwork done in establishing the reverence with which they hold violence.
Characters talk of honouring their enemies with tales of their glorious combat, which will go through the ages, even as they are about to deal the killing blow and this – mixed with interludes taking place in the afterlife, where the combatants may or may not be accepted by their ancestors – makes the action feel as if it is genuinely integral to the world we see and to the plot.
In fairness, without this, there wouldn’t be much to really speak of. While James Rolleston and Lawrence Makoare have a solid enough arc together, there’s nothing new to The Dead Lands: the various narrative beats are conventional, although the ending does take a slight left turn which pleases. There’s also some material that leads the film to feel a little fatty at 108 minutes, with a sojourn involving a mysterious woman roaming The Dead Lands offering little to the overall feel, instead making you itch in your seat waiting for more mayhem to begin.
The Dead Lands is a unique take on the action film, which roots its violence in the very pores of the culture it focuses on. That it doesn’t do much surprising with the narrative is a small complaint against what is an impressively mounted piece of brutality. Toa Fraser has marked himself as a director to keep an eye on.