Eric (Nat Wolff), an American visiting family in Norway, stumbles out of the wilderness, dazed and confused. His body covered in burn scars. As Eric heads into town, trying to recover his senses, he has an unfortunate encounter with a gang of abusive teen thugs. It ends with Eric unwittingly causing the group leader to drop dead. Held in captivity by local police Eric is counselled by Christina (Iben Akerlie), a kindly young psychologist who tries to find out what happened. Only to discover Eric has the uncanny supernatural ability to generate powerful lightning storms he can barely control. Powers that imply he may be connected to a legendary figure from Norse mythology.
André Øvredal, director of Trollhunter (2010), The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016) and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019), returns to his native Norway with a "superhero" fantasy that tries to reclaim Scandinavian mythology from the Marvel Comics interpretation. With a set-up that also vaguely evokes First Blood (1982) (shell-shocked hero with special skills stumbles into a small town only to be abused, under-estimated then provoked into violence), Mortal anchors its fantastical premise in human psychological frailty. In the opening scenes Øvredal puts a sage emphasis on the spectacular Norwegian landscape. Its vast rolling hills and snow-capped vistas give us a tactile sense of the wilderness as a living organism. That is apt given Norse mythology, like Greek myth, sprang from one culture’s attempt to rationalize the unpredictability and sporadic oppressiveness of nature. In Norse myth godhood is tied to elemental forces. Thus the thrust of Mortal sees Eric try to work out where he fits in the grand cosmic scheme of things and gain control of his powers by conquering his fear... of himself. On the flip side, as portrayed by a perpetually blank faced, confused looking Nat Wolff, Eric’s propensity to freak out all the time and threaten innocent lives leaves him hard to like. Even if it is arguably an accurate rendition of godhood in classical myth. Similarly Iben Akerlie's Christina, while established with intriguing though undeveloped personal trauma, does not lend much to Eric's journey beyond a sympathetic ear and someone to smooch. She seems included solely to facilitate the apocalyptic third act.
Very much a slow burn compared to Hollywood superhero movies, Mortal takes its own cool time unravelling its core mystery and, to its detriment, seems more interested in setting up a sequel than providing any answers. While well played, in dramatic terms the plot is rather remote with a cast of uniformly solemn players furrowing their brows through one gloomy, portentous interaction after another. A subplot concerning a scientist (Priyanka Bose) in pursuit of Eric proves especially frustrating and confusing given her drive to destroy anything that does not conform to an existing precept set down by science or religion does not make much sense. Or maybe that is the point. Nevertheless, for all its faults, Mortal remains absorbing right through to the ambiguous finale. It is a dour and humourless affair to be sure but winningly earnest with a seriousness of purpose worth investigating.