I’m not sure how it’s possible Mortal, the new film by Norwegian filmmaker André Øvredal (Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, and Trollhunter), isn’t getting more attention, but the world is a pretty upside-down place right now, so perhaps it’s fitting. Still, the fact that it’s damn solid filmmaking and an unfamiliar spin on a familiar subject matter makes its lack of attention all the more baffling.
The movie begins with Eric (Nat Wolff). a young American backpacker, stumbling out of the Norwegian forest, dirty, tired and slightly burnt. He finds his way into a nearby town and is picked on by some local teenagers who taunt his shabby look. When one of them pushes him, Eric says that if the boy touches him again, he’ll burn. The boy grabs him and within second drops dead. Eventually, Eric is caught by the authorities who not only want to understand how this teenager died but also realize Eric is the only survivor of a nearby farm fire that killed others. In addition to being questioned by the police, Eric meets (and opens up to) a psychologist named Christine (Iben Akerlie, The Little Drummer Girl). Soon, an agent from the U.S. embassy (Priyanka Bose) shows up to take him into custody, and all hell breaks loose when the helicopter they are traveling in goes down in a sudden electrical storm that seems to have been created by Eric.
It’s at this point in Mortal that we begin to realize we might not be just watching a thrilling action story; we’re watching an origin story about a young man with Norwegian roots who is discovering that he has the power to control the elements—in particular, electricity in the form of lightning. With the ill-advised help of Christine, a sympathetic police officer named Bjørn (Per Egil Aske) and the UN agent determined to put Eric down if he shows signs of aggression again, Eric goes back to the remains of the farm to discover something about his heritage and his possible connection to the region’s ancient mythology. The result of his search might make you laugh, but I loved it because of the pure audacity of the concept.
Wolff’s raw and frazzled performance as a truly confused and terrified young man afraid of his own body is really impressive, even if Eric does seem to have the emotional fortitude of a hormonal 14 year old. His reactions to any source of even the slightest stress or anxiety result in an impressive level of destruction that seems like overkill, but it does make crystal clear just how dangerous he can get, in turn making the attitude of those who want to end his life seem not so radical. Much in the way filmmaker Øvredal did with Trollhunters, he uses the still-prevalent superstitions of the region to fuel his story (co-written by the director, Norman Lesperance, and Geoff Bussetil). Unlike films about other people with powers in the world that once dominated the box office, the emphasis here is what would it be like if this series of events unfolded in the real world. The prospects for destruction alone are mind-boggling.
Mortal combines mysteries of the natural and preternatural world, the mechanics of a chase film, a disaster picture, and yes, even a superhero movie to make a consistently entertaining work that doesn’t quite stick the landing in the final moments. But at that point, I was already fully on board. Perhaps not for those who like their super-powered folks a bit flashier and less volatile, but I certainly dug it.
The film opens in select theaters and On Demand and Digital on November 6. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.
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