A young American man hiking through Norway’s countryside just might be the modern incarnation of the Norse god Thor in Mortal, an intriguing new film from Norwegian Director André Øvredal. This is definitely not Marvel’s version of Thor, and while it shares a basic premise with the recent Netflix YA drama, Ragnarok, both visually and tonally, it’s a very different beast.
American actor and singer Nat Wolff stars as Eric, whom we first meet walking through the woods of the island of Askøy, near Bergen. He dreams of a fire breaking out and finds that fire is real when he awakens—and that he has an odd, painful wound on his ankle. Limping into town for provisions, he is confronted by local teenagers, one of whom mysteriously collapses and dies just from touching Eric. This brings him into police custody, where he meets a young psychologist named Christine (Iben Arkelie). She discovers that he has unusual electromagnetic powers that tend to run out of control whenever Eric’s stress and anxiety ramp up—which, alas, is quite often, given his circumstances. Christine seeks to help him control it; a US Embassy rep named Hathaway (Priyanka Bose) wants to control Eric, and if she can’t—well, she’ll just have to take him out (or try).
As a filmmaker with a foot in both Hollywood and his native Norway, Øvredal also brought us last year’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (adapted from the series of children’s books from the 1980s by the late amateur folklorist Alvin Schwartz) and the 2010 dark fantasy/mockumentary Trollhunter. (It’s fantastic, if you haven’t seen it.) Next he’ll be adapting Stephen King’s 1979 dystopian horror novel, The Long Walk (as always, coronavirus willing). We sat down with Øvredal to learn more about the process of making Mortal.
Ars Technica: What drew you to this particular story, which is almost an anti-Marvel version of Thor? It’s a much more dark origin story, driven by tragedy.
André Øvredal: There is no way to compete with Marvel or any of these big blockbuster movies. So to do the opposite was always the thing. I just wanted to tell a story in the Northern mythology landscape that wasn’t the obvious one, that was something slightly different. To create a story about a modern-day ancestor to that world felt like something intriguing. And I love the idea of just starting somewhere you don’t understand: create a mystery, to try to open that mystery up as the first act proceeds, and eventually fully reveal more of what this really is about. I love movies that do that myself. So, just trying to do what I love. I wanted to make a very intimate character story, a very small movie, but one that is entertaining and fun and exciting as well.
Ars: There’s a certain minimalist restraint to the film, and you don’t rely on flashbacks to gradually reveal the underlying mystery, which seems like an unusual choice.
Øvredal: I think unless the movie is structured for flashbacks—which some movies are and they’re great, from Citizen Kane to Goodfellas, which works brilliantly—throwing in flashbacks to explain something is the worst kind of storytelling I know. I hate it. And I like minimalistic visual storytelling where the images tell the story, and you juxtapose things and you let the audience put things together—or not even put them together. Sometimes they don’t have the information they need. It becomes something that they’re teased with for a while. In Mortal, there isn’t a word spoken in the first 10 to 12 minutes of the movie. I’ve seen movies do that, and I’m very fascinated with how that works, and I was trying to do something similar.
Ars: Naturally, you’ve got all that gorgeous Norwegian scenery, but I was impressed with how you extended the minimalist feel to the special effects—ionized air, levitating water drops, and of course, quite a bit of lightning. It gives the film a very distinctive look.
Øvredal: I wanted the film to look elegant and to have two very distinct points of view. One is the large scale, where sometimes we’d use as wide shots and lenses as we possibly could to get distance and to put everything in context. And then I wanted to have a very macro view on the world, to be very intimate, close to hands and eyes and ears—to really feel the texture of the world. That lends itself to this kind of closeness with nature and also [to] an intimate character movie, obviously.
Ars: I grew up reading mythology, and the Norse myths were among my favorites. What is it about these stories that resonates so powerfully that we’re driven to reinvent them?
Øvredal: I think that the mythology is weird. The stories don’t really connect that well. But the characters are amazing, and the character relationships are intriguing. I think that’s first and foremost: all those wonderful characters exist in this world. They’re iconic and unique. Thor, for example, is a character who has different facets. He’s an angry god, he has a temper, but he’s also a protector of mankind. That’s how we are as human beings. We have many sides to ourselves. I think that’s the stuff that intrigues us.
Ars: Without giving anything away, you’ve opted for quite an ambiguous, open ending. What was your thinking behind that decision?
Øvredal: I always saw this as the beginning of a story, and I wanted to really leave it as a beginning. I also wanted the ending to be a dramatic, huge twist on everything you’ve seen. To go out with a genuine bang was to me a huge attraction, and also to dare end the movie where you don’t expect it. I personally love when movies do that. Some people don’t, but I do.
Ars: How does Mortal fit within the broader context of your work? You seem to move quite easily between making European films and Hollywood films.
Øvredal: I think the Norwegian movies are a little bit more oddball. The American movies are a little bit more solid stories maybe, and the Norwegian movies are kind of crazier in some way. I think that just goes with what the culture expects. American storytelling is very plot driven. It’s very character driven. While maybe European movies are a little bit more atmospheric and not so focused. That probably is the difference that shows up in somebody’s work who’s split between the two worlds. I love American storytelling. It’s what I grew up with. It’s what made me fall in love with movies, not European filmmaking. So all I can do is maybe add a little bit of flair to my American movies.
Mortal is currently available via video on demand and in select theaters in English and Norwegian, with English subtitles.
Listing image by Saban Films