The annals of Christianity — or if you prefer, of religious persecution — are full of horrifyingly inventive ways to maim and murder. The Irish medieval action-drama “Pilgrimage” denounces such violence while reveling in the same.
It begins with a graphic first-century stoning, chunks of scalp and skull and brain torn off a martyr by flying rocks, and eventually leads to a whole lotta sword tips emerging from soldiers’ faces. As a bloody spectacle, the feature steadily builds in novelty and suspense to a queasily rousing final fight. As a meditation on the possible merits of such brutality, however, it’s facile and self-satisfied.
The world of “Pilgrimage” is cruel, gory, and male enough to pass as an alternative universe to “Game of Thrones.” A half-dozen wayfarers — several Irish monks, a Vatican friar, and a voluntarily mute mystery man — set out to deliver a relic from a rural monastery in “the ends of the Earth” (Ireland in pre-Columbus cartography) to Rome.
Directed by Brendan Mulwaney (“Love Eternal,” “Savage”), the film often feels like one of those episodes of “Game of Thrones” where a character treks through the forest, runs into dangerous malefactors, and all manner of metal and wood end up buried in faces and torsos.
Like the HBO series, “Pilgrimage” is often gorgeous (if occasionally too eager with the animal-carcass B-rolls), multilingual, pulpily grim and touched by fantasy. One captive is offered the sight of his own entrails. There might also be a magic rock.
Tom Holland (the latest Spider-Man) and Jon Bernthal (the latest The Punisher) are the picture’s boldface names. But Jamie Hannigan’s script doesn’t have any characters for the actors to play. As the youngest member of the cast, Holland embodies innocence. Bernthal’s secular outsider is referred to as The Mute and boasts a spinal tap of a back tat — the kind of ostentatious cross you’d expect from members of a Christian metal band.
Haloed by a tonsure (a.k.a. a hair donut) is Stanley Weber’s Friar Geraldus, a haughty martinet gradually exposed to more than justify the Irish devotees’ initial distrust of him. “[The Lord] rejoices with everyone you destroy,” Geraldus tells The Mute, a haunted veteran of the Crusades who may or may not have superpowers, after the soldier Hulks out and dispatches multiple baddies a little too smoothly.
Richard Armitage co-stars as a knight enforcing the Norman occupation of Ireland who accompanies the group for awhile, and John Lynch and Hugh O’Conor appear as monks who aren’t quite ready for the viciousness of the world beyond the monastery.
“Pilgrimage” travels quite far on the momentum provided by a series of reveals. Each shifts the film’s stakes significantly enough that we look forward to the next divulgence as much as the succeeding battle scene. It ultimately stumbles when it reaches for depth, arriving at a hollow conclusion that mistakes cynicism for profundity.
But if you’re mostly here for blades hacking away at arms and ears ripped off by hand — butchery that suddenly feels a bit quaint with the specter of nuclear war hovering over us this week — you might as well take this “Pilgrimage.”