The opening sequence of The Dark Horse depicts Genesis Potini wandering through the rain muttering to himself, intercut with his older brother teaching him the game of chess when they were both children. He stops in a store with a few chessboards set up, and continues his frantic word salad as the shop owners look on nervously. Then, Genesis starts moving the pieces with a preternatural celerity, waxing poetic chess theory, comparing the relative qualities of the Sicilian defense and the Scotch game. The preamble continues until Genesis is discovered by his handler and whisked back to the mental hospital. The title flashes across the screen, and we understand the fundamental themes of The Dark Horse immediately: dealing with mental health, the importance of family and community, and the transformative power of the game of Chess.
The plot of The Dark Horse is based on the real-life story of Genesis Potini (Cliff Curtis), a speed chess champion of Māori descent who struggled with bipolar disorder. Upon his most recent release from the hospital, he stays in the home of his older brother Ariki, a local gang leader. Genesis knows that he needs something positive to focus his mind on, so he couples with some friends to teach chess to local kids, in an effort to persuade them away from the gangs and a life of crime. The Eastern Knights are born.
Though this plot line feels well-traveled, The Dark Horse is remarkable thanks to the realism with which it portrays the hardships delivered upon the characters. Genesis truly struggles with his mental health, and he is not always in complete control. Some of the most affecting scenes in the film are simply Genesis succumbing to his tendencies. And even though he knows he needs to relax and apply the techniques he learned in the hospital, sometimes it just doesn’t work and his illness gets the better of him.
Similarly, the presence of the gang and its influence over Genesis’s nephew Mana (James Rolleston) delivers some truly brutal drama to the story. Mana is being groomed to become a member of his father’s gang when he comes of age, but it is not a world that he wants to embrace. When Genesis defies his older brother’s wishes and starts teaching Mana chess, the conflict is crystal clear and heartbreaking.
In fact, the greatest strength of The Dark Horse lay in its sterling characters and the portrayals that bring them to life. A menagerie of street kids make up The Eastern Knights, and each one has their own personality quirks. Mana is a heart-wrenching example of that temptation within each of us to settle for the station in life that we are “meant for”, and not to explore beyond our current capacities. Even members of the gang are full of realism. There’s a meanness and uncompromising attitude about them that makes them intimidating with only a few curt words.
But, without a doubt, the dynamo performance in The Dark Horse comes from Cliff Curtis. His performance is on another level. Resorting to the trite Tropical Thunder, “You never go full retard” bromide is lazy analysis at its absolute worst, because Curtis infuses this character with the full gamut of emotion, not simple tics. Curtis conveys the struggle with his mental ailments, the feelings of abandonment from his family and friends, and his unwillingness to trust others with a sad grace. His failures are as vivid and affecting as his triumphs. He can hardly keep his excitement under wraps during the chess tournament, but he also stands defiant and stern in the face of his brother and his gang. There’s a real imbalance to his character, as though he is capable of erupting into jubilance or crumpling into despair at any moment. Indeed, we see him doing both, a perfect characterization of bipolar disorder.
Chess is a metaphorical smorgasbord, and many fine chess films have sampled from its offerings. Just last year, I remarked on a particularly powerful use of Pawn Promotion in The Queen of Katwe, and The Dark Horse uses metaphor to full effect as well. At his first lesson, he unveils a beautiful set of hand-carved chess pieces, and implores each member to take a piece that represents them. Each time they return to class, they will place their piece back on the board, and only with full attendance – and a full set, can the class learn and become better. The film also incorporates Māori myth and vernacular into the chess. The pieces are likened to various mythological figures from Polynesian culture, with Maui himself as the king. The children take to this kind of storytelling and allegory quite well, and so they become immensely interested in chess.
The title of “The Dark Horse” it itself layered with metaphor and meaning. It’s obvious literal interpretation indicates the Knight on the chessboard, but the phrase itself speaks to the underdog aspect that is so often depicted in these kinds of movies. This film capitalizes on such ideas fully, doubling-down on just how little the world thinks of these children by showing how strong is the pull towards crime, low expectations, and “going with the grain” of mediocrity. Though the climactic chess sequence fully expresses that these children can rise above the expectations of their surroundings, the conclusion to the family story line is far more poignant and uplifting.
What happens to a person when no one expects anything of them? And what if that person is just a child trying to learn what the world is about? The Dark Horse shows how low expectations and resigning yourself to them robs individuals of their potential. What’s worse: these low expectations often come wrapped up in a guilt trip, as though those on the receiving end should be ashamed that they can’t rise about their situation. Genesis is always ashamed that his mind is betraying him, and Mana that he is not tough enough to embrace the gangster lifestyle (and that he would rather indulge in intellectual pursuits). This is the nefarious darkness that low expectation delivers upon the downtrodden: on the one hand it pleads with them to settle for the life meant for them, on the other hand it chastises them for not being strong enough to rise above such a life.
The Dark Horse shows the way out of such a paradox, and it begins by refusing that one’s presupposed station in life is a given. With a mixture of heart, intellect, and stunning performances, The Dark Horse shows that the expectations of others are not sacrosanct, and that through intellectual pursuits – in this specific case, chess – one can discover that the grand scope of the entire world is at one’s fingertips.