Can I just start by saying how metal that title is? What a rockin’ black metal name for a film. I know, I know, it’s just a synonym for one of history’s most infamous plagues, one which only make our excessive paranoia over swine flu and SARS seem like meagre whining (not to mention that there are probably a half dozen bands named Black Death) but holding hands with the right font? Well that’s just rocking. I wonder if there’s a band named Swine Flu… What was I talking about… Oh yeah, this movie. It’s not about metal, sadly, but it is about Sean Bean looking like he just walked off the Lord of the Rings set and a team of rambunctious killers investigating a town unaffected by the plague to sniff out a heretic. So that, in fact, does sound kind of metal. Regardless.
Spoilers to follow.
It doesn’t have the same CNN hype to it, but the English countryfolk aren’t so chipper about having their population decimated by a virus so vicious it seems like punishment from god. This omnipotent wrath, along with other gestures of the holy is exactly what’s troubling Osmund, a young monk torn between his faith, a secret love with a fair maiden and the general depravity of existence. Seeking to escape the monastery, he takes what seems like an offer from above when a band of holy-men mercenary hybrids seek a guide to help them hunt down the likes of witchcraft for the bishop. Osmund enthusiastically offers to aid them, with his own priorities in mind, though as he’ll learn from this journey, the band of swordsmen won’t be the only ones vying for his trust and faith.
The story has a real sense of scale, quickly moving from being drowned in limp corpses, plague masks and suffering within the first few minutes to the open, if murky, forests and villages of the English countryside. There’s a skilled location scout on board, I’ve been to England once before and in an I-was-there-for-like-a-week-so-clearly-I-know-everything-sort-of-way I can affirm that they do in fact have way more scenic nature than us. Regardless the dedication to believable sets and shots, or at least persistence to keep away from wall breaking TV-movie level CGI is something well worth applause. The by-product is the successful sense of the journey. Even if you can count the amount of encounters this party has on a single hand, it seems to draw out into something that took someone from point A to a faraway B.
The band of mercs, which range from Sean Bean’s Ulric, acting on god’s behalf with a violent liberal sense, to a more weathered and noble soul and every flea riddled dagger wielding manic killer in between, creates a dynamic equivalent to the bar scene in pirate movies when toothless marauders sing and drink about all the times they’ve stabbed things. When they do encounter the village spared from the plague, it is kept vague as to whether or not they are healthy due to acts of dark arts and necromancy or simply because they are so isolated from the rest of the infected world. The intention is to keep your moral compass ambiguous between two parties who are ready to jab out the other’s eyes, but this is really only effective when you feel attracted to one’s intention more than the other. The truth is, both sides in this matter turn out to be massive, murderous jerks. And it seems that being a murderous jerk in this film is more infectious than the plague itself.
It’s a bit damp on the audience when as things unfold, you find yourself with no one to root for. The godless village, as traitorous and deadly as they may be, feels like it could be more daunting and intimidating while the crusading swordsmen, who are eager to bleed a heretic, use faith for slaughter so excessively that it can make the post-modern filmgoer cringe a little bit. If this was all used to pin us at a ‘middleground’ it instead leaves us with no one to turn to, and a poor Ulric more baffled, shaken and lost as he ever was, in a severe time of need.
Black Death never chooses a route to journey down. It’s a scenic and bloody adventure, but nowhere near being an action, horror or drama, not to mention giving the audience no obvious direction as to what they should be rooting for. the film leaves the audience with little to connect to. This isn’t rotting or smouldering, but it doesn’t live up to its seriously, seriously metal name.