Opening today for a two-week run at the Biograph, "Utu" is a magnificent Western, New Zealand-style, structured along the classical lines of that disappearing form but riddled with the endearingly quirky touches of another sensibility.
Set in the New Zealand of 1870, when the British were in the process of colonizing the native Maoris, "Utu" is a tale of revenge, or more precisely, revenges. (Utu is a Maori word meaning, among other things, revenge.) Te Wheke (Anzac Wallace), a Maori corporal in the British Army, comes upon his family, murdered in a British raid, the ruins of their home still smoldering; he promptly blows away one of his British compatriots with a shot from the hip, vows war against the white man and sends another British soldier, shivering with fright, to deliver the message.
One of his first raids is against a farmer, Jonathan Williamson (Bruno Lawrence). He survives Te Wheke's bullet, but his wife doesn't. Though he doesn't have a tradition of utu, Williamson knows whom he wants to kill. Armed with a jury-rigged four-barrel blaster, he chases the Maori rebel, as does the stuffy British Colonel Elliot (Tim Elliot), who seems most offended not by Te Wheke's depredations but by the fact that a mere lance corporal could create such a ruckus.
In "Utu," someone is always stalking someone, and being stalked in return; the comings and goings of the characters, as they tramp through forests and across mountains, create a visual metaphor for the movie's web of revenge. What lends "Utu" its particular richness is the way director Geoff Murphy plays with your sympathies; you never know which side he's on, or which side you're supposed to be on -- and neither, evidently, do the characters. Several Maoris fight for the British, and one of the women rebels falls in love with a Brit, Lieutenant Scott (Kelly Johnson), whose own sympathies blow both ways. A native New Zealander, he's returned to try out commando tactics he worked out in South Africa; he's a professional soldier, with a soldier's loyalty, but he's also got an inborn affinity for the Maoris and for the land that is, after all, theirs.
Director Murphy loves the land, too; he's got a gift for placing men in their environment, for majestic vistas of mountains and golden fields of grass, that suggests the work of John Ford. ("Utu" is, in part, an homage to American Westerns, and even includes jokey references in its score to "Marching Through Georgia" and "Old MacDonald Had a Farm.") And like another director from Down Under, George ("The Road Warrior") Miller, Murphy has a flair for an action sequence. His gunshot victims leap like puppets on wires, and he quick-cuts the shift in perspective (from, say, front to behind) so you feel the oomph in your seat. He also knows how to make Williamson's monstrous gun into an icon, shooting it with a wide-angle lens as it's swung straight into the camera.
Though "Utu" has its resemblances to the Western, it's also full of mad character touches that you wouldn't expect from John Ford. Part of this stems from the practices of the Maoris themselves, who try to frighten their victims with bug-eyes and lolling tongues -- they look like a heavy metal rock band. Wallace, in particular, is a riveting, demoniac presence. His flat, stoical features (further masked by the Maoris' ritual tatoos) virtually explode in crazy grimaces. He's on a killing spree, but he's also putting on a show. And his Te Wheke gets his tactics, curiously enough, from "Macbeth," a copy of which he plundered from Williamson; if his guerrilla theory prefigures Mao, he owes a debt to Birnan Wood, too.
Lawrence gives an effective performance as Williamson -- he's clearly deranged by grief, but he never goes over the top into madman histrionics. When the Colonel ridicules him, Lawrence's Williamson approaches him with menace in his eyes, then busses him flat on the lips, and you giggle at the surprise. Elliot is nice, too, as the Colonel -- he's got a dry way with a line -- and Johnson's Lieutenant is an off-balance combination of earnestness and affecting stupidity (you'd have to be stupid to get shot as often as he does, and keep on coming).
"Utu" moves eccentrically back and forth in time, from Te Wheke's trial to the events that led up to it. The movie might have been more cleanly plotted. The characters are never stacked against each other in such a way that the oppositions have any weight. Evidently, though, Murphy is twitting us for our conventional expectations, and given "Utu's" themes, the convolutions of the story may be appropriate. When right and wrong is up for grabs, Murphy seems to say, so is everything else.
Utu, opening today at the Biograph through Jan. 6, is rated R and contains considerable violence and nudity in a sexual situation.