Monday, February 01, 2021

Hammer Time

Mortal (2020)

In the mostly silent opening of André Øvredal's latest film, Mortal (2020), there is a huge sense of landscape. Even once the film moves out of its initial wilderness about ten minutes in, the landscape is ever-present. Filmed on location near a couple of Norway's more scenic fjords, it acts as a tourist promo to a point that I said to my long-suffering partner--who was folding laundry in the other room at the time--"What do you think about moving to Norway?" "What's in Norway?" she asked. "Fjords! This movie is gorgeous!" She waited two beats before answering: "So you're pining for the fjords?" She has excellent timing.

The film itself is a horror-themed exploration of Norse myth, in which our protagonist, one Eric Bergland, is living out in the Norwegian woods like a hermit. Strange events swirl around him: lightning strikes; fires. Some of these leave him severely burned and he finds that he has to trek into town to seek medical supplies, which he steals forthwith and no waiting for the medical system to help. On his way out of town, he is accosted by a group of teenagers, one of whom is intent on picking a fight with him. Eric implores the kid to leave him alone, telling him that if he touches him, he'll burn. The kid ignores him and lo and behold, he dies. Eric is taken into custody, suspected of murder even though no one can say exactly how the kid died. Enter psychologist Christine who is told about not only the death of the teenager, but of the deaths of five other people who were burned alive on a farm out in the woods. Eric is a suspect in that tragedy, too. Eric opens up to her. He's an American, and he doesn't understand what's happening to him. He has visions of a great tree that spans the horizon and he is able to demonstrate that the fire and lightning come from him. He can't control it; it threatens to burn down the police station and everyone in it, but Christine is able to talk him down. Unfortunately for Eric, the American government is coming to collect him. They seem to have some inkling of what he is, because they sedate him before taking him on a helicopter to Oslo. But they underestimate him. He wakes up and fries the helicopter, which plunges into the fjord. Eric escapes and saves the life of the American agent who was in charge of the operation, then wonders away to find Christine. The both of them go on the run, intent on returning to the farm where everything started. When the authorities finally corral them on a bridge, Eric calls down a curtain of lightning to clear their path. Rumors spread that Eric is a living manifestation of the Norse god, Thor. With the aid of Christine's lawman friend, Henrik, who believes that the farm may be built on the ruins of Asgard in the wake of Ragnarok, Eric finds his way to some answers...

Mortal (2020)

This is Øvredal's second romp through Norse myths after the mockumentary, Troll Hunter. You can't fault him for embracing his own culture. Like Troll Hunter, Mortal has the air of being a merciless put on. It's not as overtly comedic, but it's equally in touch with its own ridiculousness (this is a common feature of Norwegian genre cinema in this century, so it's not necessarily a hallmark of this director).  This is framed as a horror movie of sorts, even though at its root it's a variant of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's origin story for the Marvel Comics version of Thor. Unlike the Marvel character, this version is keenly aware of the fact that there is a religious element to the Norse gods, particularly in the locales it inhabits. The cult of Thor is something that the film expressly mentions, and if you watch the credits you'll see crew members with names like Freya and Odin and Lokke. So it's very much a religion that remains in living memory and even contemporary practice. This film is also aware that not all gods are loving and benevolent. The old gods are a right horror show sometimes.

This is a film that follows the structure of a Gothic. There's a horrible event in the past that lives in the present, and the drama lies in uncovering the truth of that event. It's a patient film, letting Eric's dilemma unfold in purely cinematic terms. It chooses to let images like the scorched trees that greet Eric when he awakens from a nightmare stand unexplained for a while. It doesn't feel the need to hit anyone over the head with its plot points. It's content to just watch as the assembled elements of the plot congeal into set pieces. The major ones are Christine's interrogation, the helicopter ride, the flight to the farm, and the discovery of a significant set of artifacts, and while these are occasionally spectacular, they mostly don't feel forced. Admittedly, the film shows its hand when it warns the Americans against taking Eric on a helicopter, and it shoots that Chekhov's gun in due course. The confrontation on the bridge is the sort of thing you'd see in a superhero film. Øvredal,knows his signifiers, and he knows his way around special effects, so this mostly works even if the effects themselves aren't the kind of highly burnished effects you'd see in a film with a bigger budget.

Mortal (2020)

Where the film stumbles is in its performances. Øvredal's best film, The Autopsy of Jane Doe is anchored by its actors. This film seems completely unmoored from them. Neither Nat Wolff or Iben Akerlie exhibit much in the way of personality or interiority over the course of the film as Eric and Christine, though Wolff at least gets to explode into the wrath of an angry deity once his plot reaches its climax. The only character who seems to have inner motives is Priyanka Bose's Hathaway, the shady American intelligence operative, and even she gets her emotional arc from being the film's designated villain. The film never explores her unease with the religious implications of Eric's predicament even after she voices them. The grieving father of the boy who Eric accidentally kills at least has extreme emotional weather, even if it is one-note throughout the movie, and designed to motivate the plot. In all, this is a set of characters who seem more like figures moved around the plot than real people, and as a result, it's hard to care what happens to them. This is especially true of Eric, who is so closed in on himself through the entire movie that he's not really a character at all, so much as he's a Maguffin. Not for the first time this year, I found myself wishing that the filmmakers had plowed as many resources into actors as they could. Øvredal isn't completely hopeless with actors, but he doesn't have the cast to make this film work even with his best efforts.

And it doesn't really work. I thought it was fun to look at because it's photogenic as hell, and I like the absurdity of it, but when it runs pell mell into the brick wall of its ending, I realized that I didn't give two shits about the manpain the film was expressing. Hell, at least the Marvel films occasionally give me Chris Hemsworth's naked body sometimes.

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