Black Death (2011)
Succeeds and destroys where so many others have failed.
Set in England during the height of the bubonic plague, Black Death is about a young monk whose devotion to his faith is tested when the girl he secretly loves goes away to find a town that is free from infection. So when a band of holy knights show up looking for a guide to lead them to a town that’s supposedly immune from disease, the monk jumps at the opportunity and saddles up. But once they’re on the road, the knights drop a bomb on the monk by telling him that they’re not looking for a sacred village, but rather seeking out a Satanic village that they believe is the root of the fatal epidemic sweeping the land. Rather than go back to the monastery looking like a bitch, the monk stays the course and has his being tested in ways he never could have imagined.
Now, I don’t watch a lot of movies like these, because movies like these tend to suck. Season of the Witch, In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale, King Arthur – all those movies that take the awesomeness of medieval knights running train and somehow manage to turn them into laughing stocks that just don’t get it. Granted, I’m no film maker, but it seems like a pretty difficult formula to fuck up. Yet that’s exactly what happens more often than not, and the overwhelming surprise that this was a total exception to the rule played a big part in why I’m still so freaking crazy about Black Death.
One thing I was expecting from this movie and ended up getting in spades was violence. Not that I have a bloodlust in need of quenching, but the title was a dead giveaway and a bodycount just comes with the territory. With that being said, the few battle scenes we’re subject to keep very much in line with the rest of movie, meaning that they’re totally ruthless and don’t hold back. It’s a lot, but it works on a couple of levels because everything’s choreographed very well and our band of knights dispose of their enemies like they’re just taking out the trash for the big man upstairs. The Achilles’ heel of all those crappy movies about knights seems by and large to be a wonky tone, and as evidenced by the brutality and seriousness on display, the tone here is dead on.
But a movie can only work for so long on severed heads and rivers of blood alone, and that’s where the story comes in. These days in the good old 21st Century, you can just Google “bubonic plague” and find out that the whole damn thing was just caused by rats. But back in the 14th Century when you’d be burned as a witch for just sneezing the word “Google,” they had no idea what the hell was going on. All they knew was that if you were bleeding from your armpits, you were gonna die, and the best way to prevent that from happening was to pray like gangbusters.
Looking back, one can only imagine the kind of apocalyptic paranoia people were experiencing at that time, so having that blind quest for answers and salvation as a driving force behind the story is just a great freaking premise for a movie. It’s that contrast between faith and savagery, it’s watching “good” men justify their evil actions because they’re doing it in the name of the Lord, it’s watching Crusaders put everything on the line for a cause they believe in when they’re really just chickens with their heads cut off. These are not men of mercy, they’re men of God, and nothing is going to stop them from achieving what they set out to do. Folks, it’s as awesome as it is nuts.
For a movie that could easily be written off as “greasy he-men killing stuff for two hours” from the outset, it’s that much more impressive how strong this script is from head to toe. There are a lot of characters here and a whole lot of them die, but they all serve a genuine purpose, even when they’re taking dirt naps. Whether it’s establishing the imminent danger they’re always in thanks to the plague or just putting a face to these holy killers, they really do work and they all need to be there. There’s good character development, there’s strong dialogue delivered by stone cold actors with a twisted sense of humor, and there are a surprising number of twists here that I didn’t see coming whatsoever and left me pretty taken aback by the time it was all over. Seriously, where the hell did this movie come from?
I mean, you see Sean Bean on a poster and he’s still doing the whole Boromir shtick, originality isn’t exactly what comes to mind. But not only is that what I got, but Sean Bean was also a bigger badass than I ever knew he could be. Part of it is just the way he carries himself like a man who’s been slaughtering villages since infancy, but he’s an actor who manages to get a lot out of a little and he damn well knows it. Eddie Redmayne also has some highly memorable moments as the naive young monk, but Bean cannot be stopped and absolutely commands a cast of bonafide hard knocks that do not take shit from Satan.
There’s a rare satisfaction that comes with finishing a movie and liking it so much that you clear your schedule and start it right back from the beginning because it was just that good. For a sub-genre that’s horribly lacking in credibility and badassery these days, Black Death is the example by which all others should be measured. It’s a haunting experience, it’s no effing joke, and while I can’t quite give it a 9 since the violence jumps the shark a tad towards the end, I kinda loved this movie. I’m not really sure what the general consensus is, but the fact that it took so long for a someone to get this subject matter so right simply makes my head spin. Hat’s off in a big ol’ way to director Christopher Smith and Dario Poloni for this one.