Pathfinder (review)

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Viking Vengeance

Believe me, I’m as stunned as you are. 20th Century Fox didn’t let me see Pathfinder before it opened, so I was expecting, you know, junk. Crap. A mess. I was prepared for awful. I wasn’t prepared for what Pathfinder actually is: a compelling example of purely cinematic storytelling that eschews almost all dialogue and lets moody colors and visceral action tell a tale that is mythic and metaphoric.

Oh, and Karl Urban is beautiful, so that’s nice, too.
Is this the greatest movie ever made? No, but I was riveted by its urgency and passion, its painterly abstraction, its dedication to just being what it is and nothing more. What is it? A graphic novel come to life — director Marcus Nispel (2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre) created the look of the movie with illustrator Christopher Shy, who drew the whole film before they shot it; it’s available in book form — and it’s worth seeing if movies like 300 and The 13th Warrior particularly speak to you. And you’ll want to see it on a big screen because it is so thrillingly visual: unlike so many excuses for movies these days, Pathfinder is a movie, meant to be projected in the dark and experienced with a crowd. It won’t be the same on a small screen, not even a big-screen small screen.

Oh, and Karl Urban is half naked through much of the film, so that’s nice, too.

Like 300, this isn’t a “real” story — it’s not meant to be a documentary or a drama: it’s explicitly a “story” of the old kind, like we used to tell around the fire in the cave. It’s a “legend” of how one Viking orphan left behind in precolumbian North America by Norse raiders eventually saved his adoptive people, the Wampanoag Indians, when the raiders returned years later. Don’t be looking for historical authenticity — though evidence is excellent that Vikings did explore the Maritime coast of North America, they probably weren’t the monsters they’re depicted as here — and don’t be looking even for a grounded reality: the lushness of the green forests of the Indians doesn’t seem seasonally coincident with the snowy mountains where the invaders occupy.

But that’s not important. Pathfinder, like 300, is more concerned with the primitive emotional impact of peril to family, of love that binds people together, of violence that severs them. It’s on a much smaller scale here, of course: Ghost (Urban: The Bourne Supremacy, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King) has become one of the Wampanoag in the fifteen years since he was discovered, as a small boy, in the wreckage of a Viking longship, and despite some resentment that has more to do with romantic jealousy than his pale skin, he is a fully accepted member of the tribe. He’s has some competition for the heart and hand of Starfire (Moon Bloodgood: Eight Below), but all of the aggitta of this little triangle is relayed in a completely nonverbal way, through shy glances and bitter glares, and there’s something deep-down satisfying about a movie that trusts that you don’t need to have absolutely everything explained to you. It seems like such a small, obvious thing, but so few films — especially “mere” comic book or action movies — expect even this low level of involvement from the audience.

What gets overblown here, and what doesn’t, is what draws your sympathy or your fear. Ghost is not a stereotypical Scandanavian, all blond and blue-eyed — he’s not quite so dramatically different-looking from his adopted family as he could be. But the invading Vikings, his kin, are exaggerated fiends, huge, ogreish men in grotesque armor and horned helmets over painted faces — Clancy Brown (The Guardian, The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie) as the Viking leader is pretty horrifying; they speak a gutteral proto Norse (it’s actually Icelandic), which really sets the Vikings aside as alien because the Indians speak English as shorthand for “our native language, the one we understand without having to think about it.”

For all that Pathfinder is relentlessly violent — it’s mostly just one long campaign as Ghost goes up against the Viking horde to protect his adoptive tribe, with much bone-crunching and head-bashing — there’s an effortless, natural ease about the film, which doesn’t fuss too much with CGI and relies on organic stuntwork and real locations and beautiful cinematography and the force of its own simple convictions — love is strong, and can save us; the seeds of our own destruction are in our own acts, and we create our own dooms — to carry us through. The more I think about it, the more I realize I can’t stop thinking about it.

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Tue, Apr 17, 2007 10:50am

Yes! Thank you!

With a lot of trepidation (I don’t normally bother with violent films, but will make exceptions for Karl Urban) I saw this film on Friday evening, and was surprised all across the board by it, and moved in ways I didn’t expect to be — by the effects of the stylistic choices, the impact of the way the limited dialogue was used, and the overall theme of the power of love for family and community.

It has weaknesses, certainly, but it is what it is, and tells its story in a quiet way that’s still touching me, several days later.

Not only have I not been able to stop thinking about it, I’m planning to see it again this weekend.

Tue, Apr 17, 2007 10:16pm

Oh, come on, you gave a mixed review to Apocalypto but gave a thumbs-up to this boring backwash?

Wed, Apr 18, 2007 4:19pm

Well, obviously, Ken, I didn’t find this film to be “boring backwash.”

The two films have wildly different intents. One accomplishes what it is trying to accomplish better than the other.

Wed, Apr 18, 2007 10:18pm

I too was pleasantly surprised and moved by this movie, especially after all the negative reviews. It has this lyrical quality and quiet beauty to it, despite all the violence and mayhem. The movie calls itself a “legend,” and it’s very appropriate – this is a simple story told in broad strokes, and has an almost dreamlike quality. (Oh, and Karl Urban is indeed absolutely beautiful – why is he not a bigger star by now?)

Thank you for this review and for all other reviews that you do. You have this ability to see movies for what they are, and not what they are supposed to be, or expected to be (unlike many other critics). I always check out your reviews first, and, with some very rare exceptions, I know that if you like a movie, I will enjoy it too.

Sherry Fraley
Mon, Apr 30, 2007 5:46pm

Wow. I just came to this review from Rotten Tomatoes. 11%. Wo. And then, at the very bottom there’s FF, one of only 3 shown to give a good tomato. So now I’m intrigued, and I have a free AMC ticket. But I was gonna see Hot Fuzz. Hmm. We’ll see. There is Karl Urban, yes. . .

Victor Plenty
Victor Plenty
Wed, May 09, 2007 10:04pm

Okay, look, I have to start by telling you how much I’m enjoying all your excellent work. I can tell you like Karl Urban on multiple levels, because you did him a big favor by not mentioning him at all in your review of The Chronicles of Riddick. His performance was one of its high points, but that’s like being the tallest dustpile in Death Valley.

I’ve just one tiny quibble with you here (and in your review for The Matrix Revolutions as well, which I hesitate to mention because I wholeheartedly agree with you and encourage everyone I know to pretend that movie never existed).

Anyway, getting to the point at long last, the word you want is horde. You want to refer to the Vikings as a horde.

I wouldn’t bother pointing this out at all if I didn’t admire your writing and wish you every possible success.

Thu, May 10, 2007 1:25pm

Noted, Victor, and corrected.

Tue, Jun 26, 2007 3:38pm

Giving this movie a good revie makes me embarassed for you.

Tue, Jun 26, 2007 10:31pm

Thanks, Daniel. You’re a charmer.

Wed, Aug 08, 2007 2:04am

This movie was atrocious. The action was poorly staged which makes it hard to be a “successful” action movie. Apocalypto works 1,000 times better as a chase movie than this does as a prophecy/action movie.

Fri, Aug 17, 2007 9:39am

In my opinion, this movie was utterly terrible. The plot was non-existant and the characters were unbelievable. I understand that an action movie isn’t supposed to be strong in these areas, but I felt no compassion whatsoever for any of the characters. How did you manage to suspend your disbelief?