Combustible Celluloid
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With: Nat Wolff, Iben Akerlie, Priyanka Bose, Per Frisch, Per Egil Aske, Arthur Hakalahti Eilertsen, Ingrid Jørgensen, Mathilde Dokka Sveen, Torunn Lødemel Stokkeland
Written by: André Øvredal, Norman Lesperance, Geoff Bussetil, based on a story by André Øvredal
Directed by: André Øvredal
MPAA Rating: R for brief violence
Language: Norwegian, English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 104
Date: 11/06/2020

Mortal (2020)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Hammer School

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

With Mortal, which opens November 6 in select theaters and on demand/digital, the talented Norwegian director André Øvredal seems to have snatched a certain Norse god from a certain Cinematic Universe and brought him back home.

Yet, while Mortal is kinda-sorta a superhero movie, and it has some spectacular visual FX scenes, it has extremely little to do with the Chris Hemsworth movies.

Viewers expecting anything as such will be surprised by a rather slow-moving film, icy, and with more than a hint of dreariness and despair.

Shooting at home for the first time since his breakthrough Trollhunter (2011), Øvredal presents Mortal partly in Norwegian, with English subtitles, and an almost entirely Norwegian cast.

An exception is Nat Wolff (Palo Alto, Stella's Last Weekend, The Kill Team), who plays an English-speaking American-Norwegian, Eric, first seen wandering the woods, with shabby clothes and ratty long hair and beard, and sleeping in a makeshift tent.

He awakens one night to find that the trees around him are on fire.

He also seems to be in constant pain, with dark burns and/or scars on large portions of his body. He limps to a nearby town to steal some medical supplies, but runs across a band of teen bullies.

One bully gets in Eric's face. "If you touch me, you will burn," Eric warns. The bully tries it anyway, and collapses on the ground, a husk of a human.

Eric is taken into custody, where a pretty young psychologist, Christine (Iben Akerlie) is tasked with finding out what happened.

Before long Eric is whisked away on a helicopter by the American embassy, and we get a terrifying demonstration of his powers as a sudden lightning storm totally disables the craft, while hovering thousands of feet in the air.

Eric survives the crash, and from there, Christine decides to help him. His eventual goal is to find a farm belonging to his ancestors; five years earlier, Eric's powers first manifested themselves while there, and he accidentally burnt everything to the ground.

He hopes the farm holds some answers, and so it does, but also more mysteries.

Mortal is part of a recent string of outsider superhero movies, things like Sleight, Brightburn, M. Night Shyamalan's Glass trilogy, and even last year's smash hit Joker.

In these movies, superheroes are misfits and outsiders, and certainly not lovable ones. These stories are more about power — both as a corrupting influence and as an antidote to feeling powerless and downtrodden — and about what constitutes "heroic."

In Mortal, Eric does manage to heroically rescue a couple of people, but they definitely do not outnumber the people he harms while trying to get a grip on his powers.

The movie also touches, briefly, on the concept of the Divine. If Eric is truly a god, then what does that say about the other gods who rely entirely on faith, rather than displays of power?

Unfortunately, though Øvredal is a skilled genre filmmaker, with a sure grasp of physical space and tonal atmosphere — as demonstrated in his two very good American movies The Autopsy of Jane Doe and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark — he can't quite manage to find the depth to truly explore his movie's themes in any meaningful way.

As the movie winds up, somewhat suddenly, it leaves behind the feeling that it could have done more, had more of an idea of what it wanted to say, rather than touching briefly and lightly on many themes.

It's too bad because the movie is thoughtfully paced, and it certainly had plenty of time to dig. But what Øvredal does come up with is still consistently intriguing, from a patch of sun in the middle of a rain shower to the idea of a huge tree — never shown — that Eric alone sees in visions.

If nothing else, Mortal offers another, more human angle on the old familiar Thunder God, and perhaps reveals a little of the pain under the power.

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