Once Were Warriors, features a modern day Maori family, trying to cope with a loss of culture and the outlets used by the different members, to fill that void. The setting is in New Zealand, where the family lives in a government housing project. The father, Jake, is a hot-tempered, alcoholic, who can't seem to hold down a job. The mother, Beth, is a classic co-dependent who tries to keep the family together by covering up the actions of the father and making excuses for her kids. The eldest son, is the rebel, who basically runs away from the family and joins a gang, his new "family". The eldest daughter, Grace, takes after the mother in co-dependency but is a dreamer, that makes her look for something more gives her an escape. The rest of the children are more props than characters in the story, except the next oldest son, who is sent off to reform school and occasionally becomes part of the plot.
The cinematography techniques used in the movie are very vivid and show a sharp contrast. Although the film quality seems poor, it does add to the whole feel of the movie. The opening shot shows a quiet nature scene, which abruptly pans out to show a crowded freeway, along a rundown part of a city. The viewer then realizes that he/she has been looking at a billboard, symbolizing the exotic fantasy compared to the stark reality of island life. .
The director uses lighting to create a mood or feel throughout the movie. All the mundane or "happier" parts of the movie are shown in the daylight, while most of the fights, abuse and rape are shown in the dark. During the fight scene, the light seems to come from the side, giving everyone a more sinister look. During the picnic, one the most peaceful and happy moments in the movie, a soft light seems to be used, while later on the trip, when the father ends up in a bar, instead of taking his family to visit his son as promised, the light becomes harsh.