Pilgrimage begins with a stoning. Underneath the hot sun, a religious martyr’s executioners line up and chuck black, volcanic rock towards his head. Each rock lands with a crushing blow as the victim’s skull cracks and blood bubbles to the surface. It’s a brutal beginning – one that tonally syncs the unabashedly dark and gloomy period drama that it precedes – but it’s also a bit of a cinematic warning: abandon all hope ye who enter here.
Set amongst the foggy muck of 13th century Ireland, Pilgrimage follows a group of monks, tasked with transporting an ancient holy heirloom (referred to simply as “the relic”) across a landscape riddled with enemies with a vested interest in stealing it. It’s a lean premise, one that director Brendan Muldowney and writer Jamie Hannigan fill out with curios of ancient Catholicism and colloquial mysticism as the reality of the unforgiving landscape begins to clash with the holy men’s divine plans.
Tom Holland stars as The Novice, a young and altruistic monk whose relatively tame life in and around the monastery is unceremoniously uprooted with a few words from his religious guardians. He’s a necessary presence, one that offers the only real emotional porousness of any of the characters present in Muldowney’s doomed crusade, but perhaps the most interesting presence is Jon Bernthal‘s The Mute, who speaks but one word during the entire course of the film. The Mute is an enigmatic force of nature, capable both of extreme violence and incredible sensitivity, and the tension between he and The Novice keeps the film at least slightly emotionally resonant.
At its core, Pilgrimage is a road movie, albeit sans the fun, levity or even the suspense the subgenre has become known for, eschewing moments of capitulated human connection for dark-eyed brooding and sword-clashing. But to its credit, Pilgrimage is certainly more complex than a pulpy approach to the crusades has any right to be, and at its best the film perceptively presses at the grey area between deep-rooted cultural superstition and long-held institutions of religion. And while the film never quite manages to make the soul-stirring connections it seems to be reaching towards, Muldowney and Hannigan refuse to remove religion and all of its occasionally nasty consequences from the equation. Unfortunately, much of Pilgrimage is happy to operate on less interesting terms: it’s uber-violent, and boyishly sadistic as monks and other religious figures knock skull against skull (or worse, end up at the other end of a particularly nasty medieval torture device).
Where the reigning real estate gospel is “location, location, location,” the indie film mantra should be “casting, casting, casting,” and in Pilgrimage’s case, that unspoken mantra is pulled off in spades. Holland and Bernthal manage to elevate the film even amidst the carnage, giving off the impressive impression that the two have years of unspoken history, even as Holland utters few words (and Bernthal even less).
In the end, Pilgrimage is pretty simple: religion for religion’s sake is bad, human connection is holy above all else, and the 13th century really sucked. For fans of the genre with a taste for blood, some might be pleased by this Crusades-set Game of Thrones-lite, but for others, there’s little substance to latch onto amidst the carnage. It’s neither dumb enough to whiz along as a pulpy period action film, nor complex enough to take its place amongst the ranks of classics.
Pilgrimage will be released by RLJ Entertainment on August 11, 2017.