Based on a horrific, real-life mass murder that paralyzed a quiet New Zealand coastal town, Dunedin-born director Robert Sarkies' devastating drama stands beside IN COLD BLOOD, BADLANDS and THE EXECUTIONER'S SONG as a transcendent true-crime classic.
Just 17 miles north of Dunedin, the small coastal community of Aramoana stretches along a narrow sandy spit that pokes out into the mouth of New Zealand's Otago Harbor. By all appearances, it's a beautiful place to live, but on November 13, 1990, the tranquil paradise turns into hell on earth. The day begins like any other: Garry Holden (Simon Ferry) gets his two daughters ready for school, then drops in on his girlfriend, Julie-Anne (Tandi Wright); 73-year-old grandmother Helen Dickson (Lois Lawn) makes breakfast for her 45-year-old son, Jimmy (Timothy Barlett), then does the wash; and the town's eccentric loner and gun enthusiast, David Gray (Matthew Sunderland), heads off to Port Chalmers to draw a bank check, made out to the local gun and ammunition shop. When he's informed that the check now carries a two-dollar surcharge, David explodes into a frightening rage. He stalks into the gun shop, puts a $100 deposit down on a .22 sports rifle, then returns home to his small crib next-door to Garry's house -- the two were good friends before David's increasingly strange behavior isolated him from the rest of the community -- and stews. Then, a seemly unimportant event occurs: David catches Garry's daughter, Chiquita Holden (Georgina Fabish), cutting across his property and curses her out. When Garry later confronts him, David, insane with paranoia and an irrational anger toward the "idiots and incompetents" of Aramoana, retrieves a semi-automatic rifle from the house and pumps his old friend full of bullets. With a can of gasoline in hand, David then chases down Chiquita, wounds her and sets fire to Garry's house while Chiquita's sister, Jasmine (Danaka Wheeler), and her friend, Rewa (Jacinta Rawatai), still inside. Neighbors initially mistake the gunshots for fireworks and a car filled with a family returning from an afternoon's fishing unwittingly stop at Garry's burning house, only to be fired upon by David Gray. Once the shock wears off, word of the shootings finally reaches the police precinct in nearby Port Chalmers, and officers Stew Guthrie (William Kircher) and Nick Harvey (Karl Urban) race to the scene. Behind them, the road to Aramoana is shut down in an effort to prevent the shooter from escaping but traps the terrified residents in their homes. With his face blackened with grease and his rucksack filled with ammunition, Gray moves through the tiny town on what becomes a 22-hour rampage, the worst mass murder in New Zealand's history.
Dedicated to those who lost their lives that day -- and elderly Helen Dickson, later commended by the Queen herself for her extraordinary courage throughout the ordeal -- Sarkies and co-screenwriter Graeme Tetley also manage a bit of understanding for David Gray: Sunderland's disturbing performance captures the pain, fear and anguish of a man who was once part of a tiny, tight-knit community, but has been torn down by his own personal demons. With his carefully controlled pacing and superb use of sound, Sarkies draws the viewer deep into the experience of a town caught completely off-guard by a kind of violence they could never have expected, and won't soon forget. leave a comment --Ken Fox