Mortal exercises commendable ambition in its plot but is ultimately let down by a flat, dour execution; there’s something caught between its potential and its delivery, as if there’s some communication that’s been lost in the stages between the script and the film, even though André Øvredal serves as both writer and director.
Set in rural Norway, the story follows Eric (Nat Wolff), a Norwegian-American man who has suddenly developed the incredible powers of a mythological Norse god. While he can command the elements to do seemingly impossible things, he does not know how to control his powers; they first manifest on his family’s farm, where he starts a fire that destroys the property and causes his family to perish.
He runs from the scene, disappearing into the woods, but eventually resurfaces in a small town, coming to the attention of the police when a local teen who hassles him spontaneously dies on the spot as soon as he makes eye contact with Eric. Christine (Iben Akerlie), a newly trained psychologist, tries to figure out what’s going on, and a team from the American embassy, led by Agent Cora Hathaway (Priyanka Bose), attempts to take him back to the U.S. for further interrogation and evaluation.
But Eric’s powers seem to rise above any single action – from interventions to arrests to sedatives to interrogations – and as his havoc grows in scale, the world starts to notice him. Some even begin to wonder if he is a deity.
Mortal tries valiantly to explore a range of different ideas and perspectives, but struggles to succeed. Commendably, Øvredal takes some time to move beyond merely depicting chaos and seriously considers the consequences of Eric’s abilities, the torment it causes him and the disruption it causes the wider society.
But, for the most part, the movie can’t access these ideas in ways that flesh out a fully realized story. It careens unevenly from setpiece to setpiece, trying to develop its characters in between. And just when the film starts to dive into Eric’s backstory and truly ruminate on the bedlam that the plot’s events have been set into motion, it abruptly ends on a bewildering sequel hook.
There’s ultimately little to latch onto, no meaningful understanding of its characters, and a frustratingly shallow investigation of the story’s underlying themes. It is a film that largely operates at face value even though it’s clear it wants to do more. It’s somehow both drawn out on a scene-to-scene basis and rushed in the larger scope of its narrative.
Mortal just feels flat, as it lacks a dynamic story and doesn’t leave an impact when it’s done. There is always the feeling that something else should be here. Although Wolff leads a solid cast in bringing the story to life and the film’s special effects are commendable for what appears to be a smaller production, Mortal’s problems in both its structure and approach still hinder what’s possible.
Øvredal has crafted a world that is so bleak, so free of spontaneity or even surprise, that the movie seems to tacitly limit its own options from the get-go. It’s understandable that Eric would be mysterious, silent and moody, but the film errs substantially by largely molding itself to those traits of withholding and obfuscating.
Its tone is lifeless and the plot’s developments feel arbitrary. There are promising threads – particularly when the movie expands its view beyond the immediate scope of Eric and the people around him and it ponders the consequences of an individual wielding such frightening powers.
There are moments of devastation and possibility, of fear and hope. But the movie never seems to live in that mindset for too long and eventually returns to its muddle of grim dialogue and underwhelming plotting. It often plays like the setup to a bigger and more encompassing story, but that’s it. The movie hits its marks and ends, leaving so much simply unexplored.