Director Tearepa Kahi’s Muru hails from New Zealand and takes a rather unique approach toward addressing the horrors that its people have endured for over a century at the hands of the British Monarchy, which has continuously opted for violence in handling so-called “subversive elements,” regardless of the evidence at hand. Both 1916 and 2007 saw police raids that resulted in the deaths of numerous individuals who were deemed potential terrorists. Muru specifically focuses on the events of 2007, although, as the opening title cards make clear, this is not a recreation of those events, but simply a response to them. Indeed, those looking for anything resembling facts would be wise to consult their history books instead, as Muru uses these events as a jumping-off point to stage a standard-issue action-thriller that is informed by the history of its land. That it ultimately works better than it should is a testament to the righteous fury that Kahi channels into the story itself, that of a people desperate to have their harrowing history heard on an international scale. Perhaps Kahi is on to something — the old adage of “a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.” There are worse ways of getting audiences to care about the vindictive machinations of a racial hierarchy halfway around the globe than by smuggling it into an action spectacle filled with car chases and explosions. Yet, that is also the rub: does the fact that it comes from a New Zealand filmmaker make it any less exploitative?
The great character actor Cliff Curtis stars as Taffy Tawharau, police sergeant to the small New Zealand village of Ngai Tuhoe, home to famed and beloved NZ activist Tame Iti (here playing himself). Taffy’s job as sergeant basically consists of driving the school bus, which allows him plenty of time to take care of his ailing father, who is currently on dialysis. But what Taffy doesn’t know is that his village has been targeted by the higher-ups of the British government, who believe Iti is fomenting a makeshift group of terrorists that plan on assassinating the Prime Minister. The arrival of a tactical police officer by the name of Gallagher (Jay Ryan) alerts Taffy to the impending raid of his village, forcing him to decide if he is going to sit idly by while his wrongfully accused people are taken against their will, or if he is finally going to stand up against the tyranny of an unjust government.
Muru is far more compelling in its first half, as its myriad characters are introduced and the viewer tries to make sense not only of how they are connected, but of the role they will play in the ensuing events. But once the raid finally occurs, Kahi goes into full action-mode, as Taffy potentially sacrifices life and livelihood to save those people he considers family, including a 17-year-old boy and perennial fuck-up named Rusty (Poroaki Merritt-McDonald) who is never not in the wrong place at the wrong time. It isn’t long before POV shots of rifle scopes fill the screen, while trucks flip and bad guys are thrown out of helicopters. In a rather curious move, Kahi paints several of the police officers, including the aforementioned Gallagher, as upstanding individuals who desperately try to deescalate the situation, which seems like a bit of gross wish-fulfillment and a desperate attempt to appease international audiences. See, not all of the police are bad! Puke.
Kahi’s direction, meanwhile, is the very definition of workmanlike, an emphasis on clean wide shots that are appreciated when it comes to the framing of action but which never prove especially thrilling. It’s great to see Curtis in a rare leading role, even getting a chance to speak in his native Maori language, but he isn’t playing a fully fleshed-out character so much as a one-dimensional martyr. His allegiance is never in question, no matter how much the film attempts to imply otherwise, and frankly, that makes him incredibly boring company, despite how hard those world-weary eyes would like to convince us otherwise. You can ultimately see what Kahi is attempting with Muru, and there is no denying the justifiable indignation that fuels it. One simply wishes that anger had been channeled into something a little more substantial.
Published as part of TIFF 2022 — Dispatch 4.