I’m guilty of choosing 98% of the movies we watch at home. In my defense, all but a few of the films aren’t curtailed to my wife’s intellectual proclivities. I know her tastes. But does she understand mine? Occasionally, I still feel the need to exercise my right to be the papa-bear. In futile displays of masculine entertainment dominance, I’ll select a movie that’s mostly testosterone based – no gray matter. This week I went with Marcus Nispel’s Pathfinder – as fine a dumb man-movie as any.
Perhaps I’m hoping that her crush on Karl Urban will match mine, and the heft of our unified crushes will get us through this film’s obvious rough patches? This proposition seems daring. I’m about to admit to the woman I love that there’s a man out there I’ve developed serious feelings for – and he’s not even allowed to be a full fledged brave in his tribe. His pale skin, and broad, brown eyes just haven’t won over the endorsement of his adopted family. Much like Johnny Castle in Dirty Dancing, Ghost is a restless, frustrated outcast. A sex machine among indigenous prudes. If the moment arises in Pathfinder, I’m definitely making the Johnny Castle correlation. I think this tactic may include her in the narrative someway – somehow.
The rough patches I spoke of previously arrive early. Gawdamn these Vikings are rough on the locals! They seem to have two gears between the lot of them. Kill. And find something else to kill. Not much depth here. And we’re 1/34th Norwegian so I can only imagine the shame she must feel seeing our famous ancestors reduced to feral pigs. Rooting through Indian brains as if they were sniffing out black truffles. To distract her I mention Johnny Castle’s unique connection to Ghost. “Who?” She says. “Who?” I answer back. “Who are those guys you’re talking about? I don’t know anyone by those names.” She says. “It’s nothing.” I manage to say. And still a genocide of straight-up axe murder continues onscreen.
The Wampanoag people didn’t stand a chance. The technological leap between deer leather and forged iron plate armor is as wide as the Valles Marineres on Mars. But I keep this to myself. And probably God, who must be less disinterested tonight, and maybe a little curious – considering the distance his curiosity has to travel through deep space to get here – about this flipping Rolodex of moving pictures called Pathfinder. Of course he witnessed the Indians getting merc’d in real time a few hundred years ago. But I bet it never looked as stunning as Marcus Nispel has managed to capture it.
My one real hope for keeping my wife off of TikTok at this point rests upon the handsome bosom of an Indian maid named ‘Starfire.’ Pathfinder’s lone, luminescent, love interest. Johnny Castle had his ‘Baby,’ and for Ghost, there’s just no finer sexual prospect among the Wampanoag people than Starfire. See, I yearn to point out, there is romance to be found under this stinking pile of beheaded corpses and unspooling intestines. For Ghost’s heart is a divided heart. It resides in two worlds – Norway and Rhode Island – and of those he’s devoted his mortal soul to a simple, but drop-dead gorgeous, aborigine. I fail to comment on the distant possibility that there might be, at the bare minimum, a sloppy make-out scene later between Ghost and Starfire, because honestly, Pathfinder doesn’t seem to be in touch with any feelings outside of gross intolerance and blood lust.
It’s at this point in the film Karl Urban sleds down a snowy mountain riding on a Viking shield, and I feel the first real pangs of lament in my choice tonight. “Oh my GOD!” She says. But it comes out like “OMG” – eye-roll baked into the abbreviation. I feel the need to illustrate that Karl Urban (I default to calling the character ‘Karl Urban,’ as it’s still unclear to her what his character’s name is) was set on running down the slopes, away from his Viking pursuers, when they drilled him in the shoulder with an arrow, (once again employing the only language these raiders know how to broadcast – immediate violence) and he fell upon his shield, and as a fortunate happenstance, single-handedly invented the winter sport of luging. “You think luging’s a sport?” She asks. I point out that it was the first competitive event at the very first Winter Olympics. This is probably bullshit, but it sounds authentic in a way that surprises even myself.
Fortunately, a series of miracles happen at the bottom of the mountain. First miracle: Starfire kisses Ghost on the cheek while he’s sleeping. Thus indicating to us – but definitely not him – that she’s at least willing to entertain the idea of dating a honky. The second miracle: Karl Urban (‘Ghost’ is starting to sound too much like a dog in a Jack London novel – maybe my wife picked up on this before I could) figures out the combat benefits of Viking armor. This antique arms race is beginning to tighten up. The third miracle: We learn it is avalanche season in the mountains. So we can only speculate as to what winter sport Karl Urban will invent in the next act.
The chief known as Pathfinder, (the movie’s not really named after this Pathfinder, but a future, more prone to facial hair, Pathfinder to come) warns Karl Urban that it’s Spring, and the mountains are primed for avalanches, then sends him hiking off in that very direction. Pathfinder’s daughter, Starfire, pleads with her old man to stop him, but he isn’t having any of it. “He must find his own way. His heart is full of vengeance.” He says to her. To which I want to scream at the television, “BONEHEAD! His heart is full of love for your daughter! Why can’t you see that?” But he’s probably a racist old man, and doesn’t want any pink-skinned grandkids, so I say nothing except to point out to my wife that Clancy Brown was easily the most underrated factor in how great The Shawshank Redemption is. And she agrees. I doubt she finds him underrated in Pathfinder, but we have landed in concord at least once this evening, and the importance of this simply cannot be minimized.
It’s at this point my wife asks the question that Laeta Kalogridis (Pathfinder’s screenwriter – also wrote Shutter Island, which did not fail to blow my mind) maybe should have asked herself while writing this feature. “What do these Vikings even want from the Indians? They don’t have anything of value. They’re certainly not interested in capturing any of them for slaves. They’re just butchering them wherever they find them.” This gives me pause. “Bloodthirst was a very real issue with Vikings.” I answer. “It’s a genetic predisposition. Much like alcoholism is in certain races. Like the Irish or the Indians. Not that THESE Indians are alcoholics yet. Or that they’d DESERVE the death sentence if they WERE alcoholics. But I could imagine that these Vikings had maybe once accepted substance treatment for their genetic propensity toward bloodthirst back in Norgesveldet, and when they found themselves suddenly confronted by thousands of ostensibly unarmed, peaceful aboriginals, they just lost their shit. Fell back into old patterns. Went berserker if you will.” I say. The argument feels less sound than it probably is. In fact, it’s more than likely the central motivation written into Pathfinder’s Viking hoard, and I just stumbled onto it through blind luck. It’s also more than likely terribly offensive, but since most Caucasian people have such a rich sense of humor about their colorful heritage, nobody really cares. “Ha! We’re prone to bloodlust and genocide!” Hearty Anglo-Saxon laughter ensues, then slowly dissipates. Pink tongues slide out and wet pink lips as crystalline-blue eyes scan for boodle.
We arrive at the point in the film where Karl Urban is gifted a sidekick. Every great leader starts with a single follower – usually a halfwit. In fact it’s difficult to surmise if Jester is all there mentally. First off, he doesn’t understand English very well. I mean historically he wouldn’t, but since everyone in his nation is speaking excellent English in this movie – except Jester – it should stand to reason that when the man you mean to follow yells “Git!” at you, you’d definitely git. Unless, of course, you’re a clinical imbecile. Which really isn’t made clear in Pathfinder. Is this native a mute? Or did he slide out the bottom of his papoose too many times as an infant? And how do mute people sign to deaf people that their hearing is just fine? The script fails to give us any clues as to Jester’s current mental condition, except that his tribe named him ‘Jester.’ Which seems wildly inspired given the region he was born in. Indians have nine thousand different words to describe snow, but I’m guessing next to no words to describe a Royal Fool. Anyway, Jester doesn’t ‘git’ as he was ordered to do. Instead he quietly follows Karl Urban’s lead, and I’m honestly a little proud of the kid. I doubt Johnny Castle could have scrounged any morons to help him take on the snippy puritans at Kellerman’s Summer Resort, let alone an entire platoon of abstinent Vikings in the wild.
Suddenly, from like out of nowhere, Starfire finds Karl Urban sleeping in a cave, (guess she’s passed the navigation phase of requiring a pathfinder) and tells him: “There are two wolves fighting in every man’s heart. One is love. One is hate.” The logic is sound. This is a woman to hold onto. Definitely first wife potential. “Which one wins?” Asks a dumbstruck, but still fabulously suave, Karl Urban. “Whichever you feed the most.” Says this sage in rabbit furs. And then the two screw by a roaring fire like Californians. Instantly my wife’s waning interest has a stake in this tale of Vikings versus Indians. Sex was had. We saw it together. It was had and then it stopped. But it could start again just as easily as it stopped. At the very least she lifted her eyes off her smartphone for a few seconds. These seconds feel like victory. But the victory is soon dashed by maybe the most substantially embarrassing moment in the film.
To lay out what happened – Karl Urban set an array of lethal traps for the Vikings hunting Starfire, Jester, and himself. And for five exhilarating minutes the Vikings just wander through his wooded abattoir, tripping trip wires, finding themselves impaled on punji sticks, being stretched out on tree snares, as Karl slowly and methodically chips away at their numbers. All these Norwegians had to do was charge into his final boobytrap, and total defeat was all but assured on their end. So picture Karl Urban standing on one side of a clearing. On the other side of the glen a wall of sweaty Fjord Nords. In between the two – obviously unequal – armies, a death pit covered in pine branches. And then, seemingly out of the clear, blue sky, the Wampanoag braves we thought were on the other side of Rhode Island’s mountain ranges, arrive with a bevy of Indian battle cries, run straight past Pathfinder, (lets just start calling Karl Urban ‘Pathfinder’ – it is without a doubt where this story is heading) straight towards the yawping Norsemen, and fall, like war-whooping lemmings, straight into Pathfinder’s best laid trap.
I can actually hear my wife’s eyes rolling in her head. They sound like two goldfish trying to belly their way across a marble countertop.
So that’s what happened. I don’t know how this tragic mishap occurred. I just know it occurred ok? And there’s still thirty minutes of movie to go and zero chance of a recovery after that. What was, in the beginning, a mildly amusing cinematic sojourn for man and wife, has become a suffocating hotbox of remorse on my part. Especially when in the next scene Clancy Brown mortally wounds Jester, and just leaves him dying on the ground. When Pathfinder arrives, Jester, a simpleton by any metric, can’t explain to Pathfinder what has happened to him, or form the sentences to ask where he’s going after he dies, but I’d wager this forest gimp understands mortality about as well as he grasps immortality anyhow. So he dies, fumbling with his ebbing life force alone, in Pathfinder’s muscular embrace. And if I had any tears left in me after the Indian suicide stampede, surely I would shed them here. For this man. Who, because sign language wasn’t yet invented in North America, can’t express in words the obvious love and devotion he feels toward Pathfinder. And how Pathfinder hadn’t let him down – he had let himself down trying to take on so invincible an opponent with nothing more than a bone whistle and a wooden spear. Who cries for Jester? Not a soul I’m afraid. Certainly not my hateful wife, who thought the whole thing was absolutely hysterical.
Then Pathfinder, Starfire, and the original, older Pathfinder, (the only Indian during the surprise attack disaster smart enough NOT to fall into Pathfinder II’s hole apparently) are taken hostage by Clancy Brown’s Viking entourage. Things aren’t looking good for our hero, or the babe he banged not so long ago in this very forest, or her racist father. The Vikings draw and quarter Pathfinder I – because why let four horses and some rope go to waste – but not before he bestows the singular title of ‘Pathfinder’ on Karl Urban, thus fulfilling the prophecy installed in the film’s title. Before dying in about the most painful way imaginable, the elder Pathfinder lays this indigenous chestnut on Pathfinder II: “If you are not strong enough to kill the bear, use the bear’s strength to kill it.” This must be a nod to his previous mention of ‘avalanche season’ or something. I make the following prediction to my wife. “I think Karl Urban is going to employ the weight of this Viking army against itself by leading it onto a potential avalanche.” Her reply? “No shit Matlock.”
Which is exactly what he does. He swears allegiance to Clancy Brown and promises to become the Vikings’ Pathfinder, and if they’ll let Starfire live, (forever the romantic this guy) he’ll lead them to the next tribe so they can potentially put some more notches on their battle axe handles. This being a Marcus Nispel picture, however, we’re forced into half-a-dozen more action set pieces – an incident on a frozen lake and a fight hanging off a cliff ledge respectively – before Pathfinder finally calls down the power of the mountain by yelling “I KNOW WHO I AM!” in Old Norse. There’s meaning in his words though they’re totally wasted on my wife. It isn’t often a man knows his place in the world, let alone two worlds. It’s not often a man lands a job with a cool title either. And by screaming these five words Pathfinder has finally quieted at least one wolf in his heart. The wolf of hate. It is then that I inform my wife of a third, previously unmentioned, heart-wolf. Neither hate nor love, this wolf simply shrugs. For it is this wolf, howling in my heart, that best describes my feelings toward Pathfinder.
And to think that thirteen years ago, I walked out of this movie twenty-five minutes into it…