The main attraction in the engaging, largely predictable chess drama The Dark Horse is the gripping lead performance by Cliff Curtis, a part-Maori actor from New Zealand who has spent more than two decades doing notable character parts in big films. You’ll likely recognize his face: His look suggests, at least to Hollywood's eyes, no single ethnicity, and so he's been cast as Pablo Escobar in Blow, as the founder of Hezbollah in The Insider, as Jesus Christ in the recent biblical drama Risen. He’s also appeared in plenty of films from New Zealand, including The Piano, Whale Rider and Once Were Warriors. In The Dark Horse, he plays real-life figure Genesis Potini, a severely bipolar Maori championship speed-chess player who was in and out of mental institutions for much of his life.
James Napier Robertson’s film combines several potentially tired subgenres — the inspirational-teacher drama, the mental-illness drama and the gang thriller — but, helped immeasurably by Curtis’ performance, makes something new out of them.
When we first meet Genesis, he’s wild-eyed and covered in a blanket, causing havoc in a store as he sees an antique carved chess set and mutters incoherently about the “warriors’ game.” After being whisked away to an asylum, he’s released under the care and supervision of his reluctant brother Ariki (Wayne Hapi), a burly, tatted-up Maori biker-gang leader, who had once inspired Genesis’ love for chess but now spends much of his time in a run-down house with his beer-swilling, shit-talking buds. Also living there is Mana (James Rolleston), Ariki’s 14-year-old son. Mana is wary of Genesis at first, but he’s also constantly bullied by dad’s mates. That puts uncle and nephew in the same boat — the boy’s too soft, and Genesis is too weird.
Genesis finds his purpose, however, when he discovers a youth chess club being run out of a garage by his old pal Noble (Kirk Torrance). Many of the kids here are a troubled bunch — some from broken families, some in trouble with the law — and they gather together just to let off steam and stay off the streets. But Genesis, unable to control his impulses, decides he wants to take them to the National Chess Championships in Auckland in just six weeks. (“You don’t even know if they can play!” Noble insists. “They don’t need some kind of big tournament. They don’t even know their parents.”) As Genesis sets about actually teaching them the finer points of chess, we sense that, for him, the game is both his salvation and his downfall — it feeds his obsessions and emotions but it also calls for sobriety, distance, strategy. Like some musicians, he has to live on that live wire of potential madness, but if he falls off, it’ll all be over.
He also sees the game as a kind of mythic battle. “That board is like our land,” he tells his charges. “We have to protect our land.” He has each kid pick a piece from a chess set made up of traditional Maori figures and use it to help find his or her identity. Also joining the club, hesitantly at first, is Mana, who shows an affinity and talent for the game. His dilemma puts one of the film’s conflicts in stark relief — the choice between his father’s tribally inflected gang and an understanding of chess that makes it, at least symbolically, a part of Maori culture. (When, in the late scenes, the kids get to a chess tournament, the army of white faces they’re presented with hits like a thunderbolt: It feels like the first time we’ve seen any more than just one or two white people in the film.)
You can probably guess what happens. While all the film’s performances are excellent, Robertson has the good sense to stay focused on Genesis, and on Curtis. The actor does something genuinely mesmerizing with a part that easily could have degenerated into showy overacting. Genesis’ hold on reality is often in flux, and Curtis plays it all as part of the same sliding scale. On the occasions when his illness does take hold, it does so gradually, quietly, so that it sneaks up without our quite noticing it; there’s never a clean break. We’re always watching Genesis, anxious to make sure he gets through the next moment, and the next. It is at once a wonderfully empathetic and tense performance. The same could be said for the film.