After all these years and so many movies, I almost never turn away from the screen or close my eyes at impending onscreen violence — but director Brendan Muldowney’s “Pilgrimage” almost took me there on a couple of occasions.
This is one rough-and-tumble medieval Irish religious adventure, my friends.
It also features more star power than you might expect from a film such as this.
We get Jon Bernthal (so good on “The Walking Dead” and what a shame his character was extinguished so soon), on a career roll as a character actor after standout supporting work in “Baby Driver” and “Wind River.”
Bernthal delivers one of the most impressive performances of his career, playing “The Mute.” More on “The Mute” in a minute.
And we have the new Spider-Man, Tom Holland, earning some period-piece chops by donning a monk’s robe, disappearing into character with no small aplomb and even speaking Gaelic in some passages as the earnest young Brother Diarmuid.
Well done, Spidey! I mean, Tom.
(Not that Holland had been cast as Spidey at the time “Pilgrimage” was filmed. Holland was reportedly sending audition tapes to the masters of the Marvel Universe while he was doing “Pilgrimage.” I think it’s safe to say this relatively low-budget endeavor would have had difficulty affording Holland post-“Spider-Man: Homecoming.”)
“Pilgrimage” opens with a viciously effective sequence in which a man named Matthias, known by legend as “the 13th apostle” chosen to replace Judas Iscariot, is stoned to death.
We transition to the 13th century. The rock used to strike the fatal blow to Matthias has become Ireland’s holiest relic, kept under wraps in a highly guarded monastery.
A Cistercian monk called Giraldus (a suitably duplicitous Stanley Weber) orders the coveted relic to be transported to Rome, to be used as a recruiting tool of sorts for the Crusades.
“Rome has spoken!” he tells the Irish monks.
So off they go on a surely perilous journey. The small band of traveling monks guarding the precious relic includes the herbal healer Brother Ciaran (John Lynch), young Brother Diarmuid (Holland) and The Mute, who has an enormous cross emblazoned between his shoulder blades and looks like he must have invented the world’s first gymnasium, judging by his ripped physique.
Director Muldowney does a fine job of immersing us in this long-ago world, as the monks encounter all manner of opposition, from local tribesman to Norman pillagers to mysterious, perhaps supernatural forces. The score from Stephen McKeon and the photography from Tom Comerford contribute greatly to the period-piece atmosphere.
“Pilgrimage” takes itself too seriously at times, with the dialogue veering into the overwrought, and the metaphors about modern-day blind faith and undying loyalty becoming increasingly transparent and obvious.
Holland does fine work as the novice, but it’s Bernthal who owns the screen as The Mute, who will protect the relic and his brothers at all costs. It’s fiercely effective work.
RLJ Entertainment presents a film directed by Brendan Muldowney and written by Jamie Hannigan. No MPAA rating. Running time: 96 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC Woodridge and on demand.