Beowulf & Grendel
out of ****
Sit down if you’re standing, because I’m about to make the boldest statement a film critic can ever make—one that a responsible person in my profession should only state once or twice every ten years. Here it is: Beowulf & Grendel exists on the same plane of unadulterated genius as other mad, operatic visions like Stroheim’s Greed, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. Whew.
I realize that’s a hell of a list and that only time can tell if this film will ever be as enduring as those benchmarks in cinematic achievement. But I am at least certain that Beowulf & Grendel beats with the same messianic pulse that made these films immortal. Its philosophical ideas are as grand as they come, and its bold images continuously reinforce its themes with striking, hypnotic power. It represents a cinematic passion that rarely comes along, but when it does so, it breathes over us with an air of life that reminds us exactly what films can do to startle and confirm the depths of both humanity’s imagination and frailty.
Beowulf & Grendel is a retelling of the ancient poem, but it is certainly not a direct adaptation. Director Sturla Gunnarsson and writer Andrew Rai Berzins have their own story to tell, and they use the framework of the ancient text as a means to explore their characters and world—a world in which men believe they are philosophers when they are really just barbarians, and trolls believe they are angels of death when they are really just angry Neanderthals. Gunnarsson and Berzins’ ultimate conclusion is that we are creatures of the world, not creatures above or below it, and for all of our theology and philosophy and courage and civility, there is Grendel’s severed arm nailed to our castle, and this trophy makes us feel good about ourselves. Its gory depravity representing our feelings of triumph transforms into one of the most revealing metaphors in all of literature.
The entire film is a study of this sharp contrast—our ego-inflated perception versus the more humbling reality of our existence. Characters ramble on soliloquy after soliloquy, trying to outdo one another in their heroic misinterpretations of events, when it is clear that these proud words are empty in light of the more complex moral dilemmas that they mask. Beowulf, the warrior mercenary, states his name when he makes an entrance as if he expects people to swoon at his very presence, but they mainly just gawk in awkward silence, or even chuckle at his supreme confidence in his own manliness. Local poets envision Beowulf’s war with the troll Grendel as an epic battle between good-and-evil, but Grendel doesn’t even desire a war, and his adolescent rage is clearly justified. King Hrothgar, praised throughout as a noble and goodhearted king, is a drunken bore reduced to comparing his legacy to the worst kings, not the best, as a means of private comfort. Even a witch named Selma, who represents the voice of a conscience born from a postmodern outlook on war and morality, is not beyond playing the part of a whore if it means she can spit in the eyes of those who wronged her. “Good vs. Evil” has been reduced to…well, poetic fantasy.
Our barbarianism is ultimately cloaked by our eloquence, but even our greatest words are a shameful façade that don’t hide our depravity so much as they attempt to justify it. Beowulf & Grendel concerns itself with such matters—yes, we kill others brutally, but we insist that we only fight enemies who mercilessly attack our loved ones and family. But this explanation is merely an excuse to cushion our violence. When Beowulf hears news of the “evil” Grendel’s attack on his uncle Hrothgar’s beerhall, he leaps to his aid, calling Hrogthar “one as close as my own father.” But their reunion speaks of a greater truth: The two men stand in the rain, Hrothgar half-naked and drunk and Beowulf horrified at his uncle’s appearance. “You’re so much bigger than when I saw you,” Hrothgar rambles drunkenly. “I was eight when I left,” Beowulf says, and the shallowness of their relationship is revealed. Beowulf is not concerned with a father-like relationship with Hrothgar, but is rather motivated by the idea of such a relationship, and how nice the poems written about him will sound if he is fueled by family loyalty instead of rampant ego.
The film additionally deals with embellished praises as they are shaped through theology, and it suggests religion and ego are basically different sides of the same coin. Early scenes introduce theology in the form of a new religion called Christianity, and a local priest decorates this new movement with the promise of grand victory over all enemies. Christ never sleeps, he promises, and He will grant prosperity to all who will follow Him. Hrothgar and his men, who are terrified by the seemingly unstoppable Grendel, are baptized so that they will be saved from God’s wrath, both in this life and the next. Beowulf witnesses this new conversion in disgust, and he correctly points out, “You swim out of fear.” Hrothgar’s rebuttal is also correct: “But still, we swim.” If a new religion equals the promise of conquest, riches, and heaven, how can it not succeed with a people who are so determined to triumph over all enemies? It is a perfect match. For the poets, this progressive religion also promises new myths to blend into their own, and Beowulf’s own personal storyteller weaves the legends of Cain in with Grendel to explain his sinful motivations. Nobody buys into this romantic version of the facts, but they can’t deny that it certainly sounds great around a campfire. But again, we see the tawdriness of these oral poems in dialogue mumbled by characters who don’t think anyone is listening. Contrast the poet’s vocal meditations on Grendel with a drunken Hrothgar’s, who quietly mutters to Beowulf, “What’s the point of wondering why does a f---ing troll do what a f---ing troll does?”, and you see the poet’s eloquent fabrications unveiled as the comforting absurdities that they are: Frankly, they're not fooling anyone, even though everyone pretends to be fooled.
The film is a series of such contrasting scenes, in which fluent deceit is one-upped by more disturbing truths, and they constantly bring us back to the irony of our words when weighed against our reality. Beowulf & Grendel is joined at the hip with the aforementioned visions that contemplate our weightlessness in the universe and our ardent desire to say it isn’t so. 2001 focused on our technological advances, and it eventually revealed that for as outstanding as our space-stations and rocket-ships are, the universe’s secrets will never be known to us. Fitzcarraldo exposed a madman living in the heart of the jungle and his daring attempts to create feats that would allow him to master the wilderness, only to have his dreams trampled on by a jungle that ultimately masters him. Apocalypse Now showcased humanity trying to justify its warlike nature by stressing violence’s necessity to obtain civility, but its final image of order—Kurtz’s camp of mindless slaves—proved that civility is simply war’s fabrication, not its goal. Between these films, the great human achievements of technology, vision, and war are measured against the universe, and they lose. Beowulf & Grendel provides a fourth exclusively human element, poetic language, and reveals how it also fails, except as a masterful veneer that allows our superficiality to appear as profundity.
In films with themes and ideas as weighty as these, they require unique images of man engulfed by an indignant world. 2001 had its lengthy segments of space stations drifting quietly in the vacuum of space; Fitzcarraldo has its steamship hauled up a sharply-angled mountain; Apocalypse Now had its mystical, deathly river that seemed to drift backwards in time. Beowulf & Grendel rises to the task and stands on equal footing with these other epics with its constant images of wind and wet that swirl, soak, and often force the actors to scream at one another at the top of their lungs. The film was shot in the mountains of Iceland, and it was the correct choice. Typhoon-level winds and constant rain would have shut any other production down (more on that later), but for Beowulf & Grendel, they provide key images of the all-encompassing desolation of nature. Humans don’t belong in a terrain so rugged, and the winds literally seem to be pushing them out of its way, trying to drive them farther and farther away from its terrain.
There is a particular image that I believe in time will be embraced as one of the greatest sequences in all of cinema. It begins as an extreme-shot in a peaceful ocean that engulfs the screen. In the middle of this picture, we see an indiscernible, pointed object drifting quietly in the water. We silently zoom in on it, and our eyes strain to get a better look. Is it a piece of wood? A rock? A stump? No—it is a human head, which belongs to a body that finally stirs to life as we get a clear look at its face. The still poetry of this shot—a body floating silently in an indifferent ocean—sums up the theme of the whole film: Man drifting helplessly in the apathetic world, his only motivation to keep from plunging in over his head. It is one of the purest cinematic images that I have seen in quite some time—the kind of filmmaking for which movies were conceived. Malick, Herzog, and Coppola could not have pulled off this sequence with more metaphorical or rhythmical power.
The face in the ocean belongs to Beowulf. He is played by Gerard Butler, an actor who I had only mildly noticed before but am carefully eying now. He is the perfect choice for the role of a deeply superficial man who has surrounded himself with so much fame that he is beginning to believe his own hype (he also played the title character in Weber’s Phantom of the Opera, and his performance here is nearly a critique of his role in that overblown, shallow work). The film begins at the height of his ego, and it slowly peels away the layers of his boasts as he realizes that the war he has stepped into is not a war at all, but a family feud. He alone comes to the realization of the emptiness of his lofty words that disguise his insecure, violent heart as noble. At the end of the film, he has discarded most of his pride and has gained a new philosophical viewpoint: Hrothgar asks him, “Do you think you’ll go to hell when you die?”; Beowulf’s reply is perfect, and watch the way Butler delivers the line, with a quiet, honest conviction that finally sheds what’s left of his self-indulgence once and for all. It is a great performance.
Equally as compelling is Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson as Grendel, who plays the infamous troll as a wronged child whose revenge is justified and measured. His tone is curiously muted; he depicts his rage in articulate grunts and hisses instead of the more traditional, furious depictions we have seen of Grendel (i.e., John Gardner’s novella, which certainly made him more philosophical but less a victim). Sigurðsson’s Grendel could very well be the descendent of 2001’s Moonwatcher, whose intelligence and curiosity advanced beyond what his era permitted. Grendel here is not particularly intelligent, but he represents a moral decency and sincerity that the other characters lack. He is not a supernatural demon; he’s not even particularly cruel, though the poets of the film depict him thus. He is simply an adolescent who was robbed of his family, and he responds to the loss in the same manner that it was given. When you realize that the most civilized character in the entire film is the bone-grinding troll, and that his acts of grisly violence produce a less disturbing effect than the boasts of his detractors, you begin to understand the film’s complex moral strategy.
Beowulf & Grendel’s difficult and laborious production is already becoming notorious as one of the most difficult shoots in recent history; time will tell if it will also become infamous (much like Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo, two other notably maddening shoots, a documentary is being produced about the making of this film). Ridiculously fast winds literally tore sets from their foundations, boulders and rocks bounced about the actors and filmmakers with deadly abandon, and union workers often refused to work because they weren’t getting their salaries. Stars Butler and Sarah Polley expressed utter shock that the production was continuing under such strenuous conditions. Tensions were always high, and everyone grew weary as nature continuously tried to force them away, much like to does to the characters.
Yet the film comes together, and the difficulty of the shoot only bleeds passion and furious ambition all over every inch of the frame. Yes, it was mad for director Sturla Gunnarsson to move forward as the production spun wildly out of control, but then, this is a film about human madness rising above its false civility and reason. Anything less than a dangerously thorny shoot would have undermined the film’s point. Instead, its theme is confirmed, and Gunnarsson’s vision joins the ranks of other feverish, cinematic hallucinations that challenge the depravity of our humanity by embracing the emptiness of the universe and lingering on our inexplicable and unceasing pull to conquer it.
Gerard Butler: Beowulf
Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson: Grendel
Stellan Skarsgård: King Hrothgar
Sarah Polley: Selma
Tony Curran: Hondscioh
Truly Indie presents an Arclight Films release. Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson. Written by Andrew Rai Berzins, from the ancient poem. Rated R, for graphic violence, language, and brief sexuality. Running time: 103 minutes. Original United States theatrical release date: June 16, 2006 (in select cities).