The Dark Horse Review: A Pawn Out of Place

The Dark Horse is two movies in one. It’s a story of inner city kids in New Zealand learning something inner city kids don’t usually learn. It’s also a rich portrayal of mental illness. The film interweaves these two things rather successfully throughout, never leaving one off the table when it counts most. Cliff Curtis gives a rousing performance as both mentor and man in recovery. But with so many moving parts, the film suffers from awkward tonal shifts that plague it’s overlong runtime.

Homeless and off his meds, Genesis (Curtis) finds inspiration in a chess club for the inner city kids. A master of the game himself, and a hit with the kids, he finds a path to help the community and his family by way of the king of all board games. But chess is a hard game to make interesting on the big screen. The script instead relied on obvious symbolism between the names of the pieces and the kids in the club. Everyone has their part to play, and some lose, but they’re a collective team. Sometimes inspiring but more so nauseating, the cuter moments don’t play well against the more melodramatic bits. This is a film where serious gang violence is as common as a “checkmate.”

Based on a true story, it’s not entirely writer-director James Napier Robertson’s fault for simply bringing this complex story to the big screen with all its opposing forces intact. But the tone being all over the place never gives the audience a chance to settle or let the emotional moments hit before something of the complete opposite mood hits in the very next scene. Still charged by Curtis’ brave and grounded performance though, The Dark Horse is a flawed beast unsure of how to get its point across that still finds some success. Grade: B-

By Matt Dougherty

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