Sam Kelly’s Savage is as much a film providing social commentary on the complex reality of masculinity as it is a fly-on-the-wall view of the hierarchical nature and complicated world of gang culture. Savage delves deep into the ranks of New Zealand’s gangs as we see a gang enforcer named Dany (Jake Ryan) grow up from childhood into a founding member of the Savages.
This is a character driven story at heart, with a specific focus on the interplay between masculinity and the lead characters identity. From physical and sexual abuse, to a sense of abandonment, to the longing of being part of a family – director Sam Kelly is tapping into the soft innards of the harder exterior shell of a man who’s entire life is defined by violence and abuse. This approach has been seen before, like in the Belgian film Bullhead (2011) or the more widely known drama Moonlight (2018). Savage is drawing from a similar well, taking the approach of showing the character grow from a boy, to a teen, to a man; all while showing this character struggle to identify with himself and to instead create a facade constructed by machoism and violence.
What Savage perfects is portraying the gang culture within New Zealand. The constant cussing and unnecessary violence due to internal gang warfare makes you feel as if you are a part of the Savages. The violence in this film is used sparingly, as this film reads more like an indie character-study than it does a high-octane display of brutality and action – so don’t go expecting some expansive fight sequences. What also Savage excels at is its tension, keeping you invested in characters and what decisions they’ll make.
Savage has the surprise of being an incredibly well shot and framed film, with abundant low light shots displaying impressive shadow detail. There’s a filmic grain added to accompany the vintage setting that adds more sense to the timelines. But what was perhaps the most surprising aspect of this film was its sound design; the use of sharp ear-piercing rings and deep rhythmic tones create both ambience on the soundstage and help elevate the characters emotional outbursts or internal conflict. Great stuff.
Savage may be lacking in areas surrounding the lead character and our investment in his rehabilitation – but what it lacks in characterization, it makes up for in investment in the journey that Sam Kelly has created here. This film may not have the same visceral gut punch as the aforementioned titles Moonlight and Bullhead, but it provides something different in exchange, a view into a world that we rarely get to enter. It has a simple message. If you look at a man whose life embodies violence and anger, you’ll often find it began that way too.