Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Black Death

Black Death (2010)
Dir. Christopher Smith
Starring Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Clarice Van Houten

BLACK DEATH begins unpromisingly, with a dorky font and the grimly tinted blue film stock which might conjure images of a Sci-fi (Sy-Fy? Really?) Channel original movie. It looks cheap and unmemorable, but even from the start there's something elusively dismal about it, an odd kind of morbid fatalism which throws you off and neatly deflects the ho-hum convention of the opening. Stick with this thing; it gets more interesting the longer it runs. Eddie Redmayne plays Osmund, a young monk living in a monastery as the Black Plague decimates the population around him. The atmosphere is dire, as tumbrels fill the streets, and every face seems to hint that it brings death with it. Believing in a caring God at a time like this requires a creative interpretation of the divine motives, and the monks seems split over the meaning of the darkness that has consumed their world. Their alternative explanations for what God is doing (maybe God has nothing to do with this, maybe he's punishing sinners, maybe he's teaching a lesson in faith, maybe this is the work of the devil) subtly hints that people create their own explanation to meet their own worldview, but also neatly demonstrates how cognitive dissonance can allow people to hold strong but apparently contradictory beliefs. Further illustrating this, man of God Osmund turns out to be living a double life, as an earnestly devout monk but also as a caring consort to local babe Averill (Kimberly Nixon) who he persuades to flee the city before the plague can touch her.

This conflict of belief leads Osmund to hope for some kind of sign from above as to what it all means, which appears to come, as these things tend to, in the form of Sean Bean. Bean plays Ulric, leader of a group of knights in service of the local Bishop, who are tasked with rooting out infidels with, uh, extreme religious prejudice. Ulric is a hardcore believer, who genuinely considers himself saddled with God's predilection for butchery, but his crew consists of some truly scary medieval motherfuckers who have their own varied reasons for following him, ranging from money to pure sadism. Ulric and his crew are interesting characters, because the film is quite frank about their brutality but also refuses to entirely make them into monsters. When they encounter a lynch mob about to burn an extremely dubious witch, we watch in horror as Ulric callously stabs her in the heart with a knife. When confronted by Osmund, however, Ulric simply explains that she was dead from the moment the murderous mob caught her, and that all he could do to help was to make her suffering as brief as possible. In a world as brutal and random as the one they inhabit, that may just count as humanism – or is it merely a rationalization for detached savagery disguised as realism? The film doesn't have an easy explanation, and it only gets more complicated from here.

                                                  I want this poster in black velvet.

You see, Osmund suspects that God has sent Ulric and his crew to the monastery to help answer his questions, and so he joins them in their current mission: travelling to a remote village where rumor has it a practicing necromancer resides in defiance of God's will. Along the way, the group encounters signs of the cruelty and instability of the times, watching people turn against each other as they seek to explain the ugly reality of their situation using the only moral tools available to them through Christianity. Somewhere along the line, Osmund discovers that poor Averill has vanished, leaving behind a good portion of her blood and belongings. It's a devastating loss for the young man, but he deals with it the same way everyone else seems to: by trying to explain it as God's will. She and he were living immorally, so it makes perfect sense that God would have her brutally murdered and probably horrifically raped in some remote wilderness. That seems to be how God rolls these days.

When they finally reach their destination, however, things become stranger. The village, as rumor suggested, seems suspiciously untouched by the plague. In fact, things seem suspiciously clean, functional, and – uh oh -- progressive. The soldiers decide to play it cool and pretend they're just simple visitors while they souse out the infidel, but no one is really buying it. The villagers are superficially friendly, but there's an undercurrent of hostility and suspicion. Maybe there's really something to this rumor that they're satanic monsters. But then again, we also know these soldiers are bloodthirsty zealots ravenous for infidel blood, so their suspicion seems pretty justifiable. Are the villagers innocent victims of radial religious nutcases, or do these particular infidels have something truly sinister going on?

The genius of the film is that it's slow to reveal the whole story. Both sides seem to have a believable enough motivation that you're not sure which one you should side with. Each time a potentially damming bit of information is revealed about one side, it's countered with something else which makes their perspective seem understandable, if not exactly relatable.

I don't think it's exactly a stretch to imagine that this film is intended as a metaphor for the rocky religious issues which dominate many of the world's current conflicts. In the film, both sides are depicted doing awful things, but the film resolutely refuses to allow you to entirely villainize either one. If the villagers seem hostile and vaguely blasphemous, it’s easy to understand why that might be given the bloodthirsty, inflexible morality of the soldiers who have come to kill them. On the other hand, it's easy to admire the stalwart idealism of Ulric and understand his suspicions about this hostile, creepy enclave he's trapped in. The further both sides go, the more impossible it is to deescalate the tensions, and the more each side is convinced of their own moral rectitude. Both sides cross lines that you can't really come back from, and things come to an appropriately bloody head.

Most movies would end there, but this one has a little coda which makes it of particular interest. Having already shown us the bloody results of this cultural clash, the film takes an unexpected interest in what happens next. It’s one of the very few horror films I’ve ever seen which takes an interest in how the psychological damage from the cultural clash affects the survivors, warping their beliefs and concerns into something hard and ugly. If it’s not exactly subtle, it is at least thoughtful, which could probably be said about the whole film.

Director Chris Smith (who also directed SEVERANCE and TRIANGLE, which I’ve heard good things about but haven’t seen) wisely plays it pretty straight and realistic. Things are bad, but the details feel honest and Smith shoots things matter-of-factly, letting the subject matter speak for itself. The music, editing, and photography are restrained and never call attention to themselves, and although the film is quite frank about its violence and traffics in plenty of images of plague ravaged corpses, it calmly resists dealing in shock tactics (blessedly, there’s not a single jump-scare in the whole thing). Smith is making a horror film, but he trusts the grim details of the subject to be horrifying enough that they don’t need a lot of showy staging and loud noises (town leader Clarice Van Houten may overdo it just a tad, but not enough to derail the effect).

Perhaps the closest comparison is the similarly frank but stylistically unadorned medieval horror/drama WITCHFINDER GENERAL, which likewise milks horror out of its unblinking approach to the horrific facts of life at this time. That one, however, at least offered clearly drawn heroes and villains. Here, there’s no such certainty – just the unblinking assurance that instability and superstition breed brutality in an ever-escalating cycle. It’s a philosophical kind horror more than a visceral one, but its matter-of-fact approach to an all-too-believable human cruelty and pettiness gives it the kind of heft that horror films which hide their monsters in the shadows can’t quite muster. The result is a unique, thoughtful film which may be a little too on-the-nose at times but ultimately casts a dark spell which sticks with you.   


  1. "Stick with this thing; it gets more interesting the longer it runs."

    I gave up on this one after about 15 minutes because it was just too ugly to look at. I know it's supposed to look grim and whatnot, but I'm just getting so tired of every new movie I see having a desaturated color palette, shot in an unsteady handheld fashion, with choppy editing to match. Just looking at the movie somehow strained my eyes and made me drowsy.

    But now I'm a lot more interested in giving this another shot after hearing your take, so I suspect I'll get to it soon, or during my annual October horror movie marathoning at the latest.

    I've seen Smith's other 2 films that you mentioned. TRIANGLE is actually pretty cool, I guess, although definitely a minor pleasure. SEVERANCE, on the other hand, is kind of a mess: an awkward mashup of grim HILLS HAVE EYES style misery horror and goofy REANIMATOR style yuk-yuks that completely cancels itself out. You credit BLACK DEATH with avoiding schock tactics; SEVERANCE is pretty much all shock tactics yet manages to blow almost every single payoff or money shot, resulting in minimized impact any time someone steps in a bear trap or gets decapitated or whatever.

  2. Correction: i meant to say that I'm sick of seeing that style in every movie looking for a visual shortcut that says "gritty." And not only is it played out, it just looks like shit unless you really know what you're doing.

  3. Yeah I almost walked away at about 15 minutes as well, it just looks cheap and boring and by-the-numbers. Fortunately, for whatever reason that desaturated UNDERWORLD (shudder) look is mostly in the first 20 minutes. After that, it's mostly shot in sunlight as straightforwardly as possible (there is a battle sequence at maybe 30 minutes which is definitely post-action, but after that the film is about scenario more than style). I don't want to oversell it, but the best parts of the film are the ones which confidently sell the plot as straightforwardly as possible with minimal stylistic interference. I remember you didn't care for WITCHFINDER GENERAL either, which I feel is a pretty fair comparison, but this film is somewhat more professionally assembled and the grim tone is perhaps a little more legitimately earned. Its an ugly movie all the way through, but I think the plot is unpredictable and compelling enough that it gradually takes control of your attention.