While it is slightly confusing on a first viewing for someone with scant background knowledge about the setting, Utu is still a largely entertaining, interesting and well made film with an odd tonal combination of a western, a war film, a Charles Bronsonish revenge flick and touches of macabre comedy.
Utu is inspired by true events in New Zealand circa 1870. We focus on a military-oriented motley crew of English, Caucasian New Zealanders, or Pakeha, and natives of Polynesian descent, or Maori. The general atmosphere in the film is similar to the pioneer atmosphere of some U.S.-oriented westerns set in the late 19th Century. The plot is catalyzed by fighting among the English, Pakeha and Maori with difficult-to-discern lines of division. To an extent, it seems that these oppositional groupings must have been somewhat chaotic in reality, and especially Maori are shown flitting from side to side.
The important points for the film, though, are that we're shown the massacre of a Maori village by Caucasians in the beginning, and we're shown the Maori Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace) happening upon the aftermath of the massacre, whereupon he swears revenge, or "utu", on the white men for their misdeeds. His chief opponent is Lieutenant Scott (Kelly Johnson) a very young Pakeha (who looks a lot like a young Jay Mohr) with a very multicultural band of military men under his command. A homesteader named Williamson (Bruno Lawrence) also becomes unwillingly involved, and Scott is under the command of a relatively staunch Colonel Elliot (Tim Elliott). On the "forest" level, the film is a relatively simple coming together of these characters as Te Wheke seeks his revenge.
In terms of action and the film's western modes, Utu is very satisfying. The attack scenes are thrilling, visceral and even occasionally gory. The western scenes are often accompanied by beautiful cinematography, sometimes with wide landscape shots showing the varied and gorgeous natural features of New Zealand. For voracious viewers of American films, the western material periodically feels more like a low-key Civil War movie. Writer/director Geoff Murphy meshes all of these styles together well.
The film's politics and ethics are kept complexly gray. Maybe a bit too gray, considering how difficult it can be to keep all of the characters and their sides straight, but on the other hand, Murphy is probably shooting for historical accuracy in the complexity, so it's at least understandable on that end.
Wallace makes a great anti-hero. At first, when he happens upon the aftermath of the Maori village massacre, we deeply sympathize with him, but shortly after this scene, he's hacking and shooting up everyone more like a serial killer, or a Maori Charles Manson. Still, sympathy with the character doesn't completely disappear, and it may be helped if one is familiar with New Zealand history--I would suspect that in general, the Maori received treatment from Caucasians something like American Indians did. The scene with Te Wheke undergoing a ritual scarification/tattooing is one of the best symbolic "obedient do-gooder to avenging hurricane" transformations I've seen, even though it is fairly understated. Wallace's role as a rip roarin' antihero is even more interesting in light of his offscreen history. Born Norman Pene Rewiri, he committed armed robbery as a youth, was sent to prison for a number of years, changed his name to Wallace, and became a union organizer. Utu was his first film.
Murphy also peppers Utu with a very interesting romance between Lt. Scott and a Maori woman, Kura (Tania Bristowe), who weaves her loyalties in and out of Te Wheke's gang. This is one of two tragic romances in the film--the other being between Williamson and his wife, Emily (Ilona Rodgers)--that fuel "big turning points" at other times in the plot in a deepening of the film's theme of karmic retribution, or as an earlier scene notes, "He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword". Thematically/subtextually, Murphy passes with flying colors.
The performances are good, and Murphy's direction in terms of blocking, tonalities, pacing, editing and so on is great. My score for Utu is really a "high 7". I wish I could have given the film an even higher score, and I can envision myself appreciating it more on subsequent viewings (provided I don't completely forget about all of the factual background material I've looked up since watching it), but my confusion with the plot and characters just wouldn't allow that, no matter how much I enjoyed the film otherwise. I know that some of the problems I had were with dialogue and pronunciations--this is definitely a film that could have benefited from subtitles.
But Utu has some great scenes, some excellent extended sequences (including the homesteader sequence and the climax--both were incredibly suspenseful), some memorable characters, and a wicked sense of humor--there were a couple times I almost felt as if the film were turning into a "black comedy". It's worth checking out if you're into world cinema or any of the film's genres, and probably even more imperative to watch if you have an interest in New Zealand history.