He may have been killed off at the conclusion of the second season of The Walking Dead, but Jon Bernthal is thriving quite well on his own now, thank you. In Marvel’s Netflix universe, he made an impressive debut as The Punisher in the second installment of Daredevil, moving up to The Punisher, his own series, in December.
On the big screen, he had strong supporting roles in The Accountant, Wind River and Baby Driver, all good action thrillers in which he played a badass. In the new Irish film Pilgrimage (2017), he again plays a tough guy in what may be his most close-mouthed role. He has only one four-letter word of dialogue.
Though Bernthal is the film’s central action hero, he’s not really top-billed. That honor (more surprises) goes to Tom Holland, Marvel Universe’s new Spider-Man. Both he and Bernthal, with a good supporting cast and spectacular cinematography, do well in a landscape very different from that of vengeance-driven superheroes.
Written by Jamie Hannigan and directed by Brian Muldowney, Pilgrimage opens with a short wordless prologue set in Cappadocia in 55 A.D. His hands bound with rope, a middle-aged man with an early Christian symbol hung around his neck is pulled over a barren landscape and summarily stoned to death. The stoners’ leader, hoisting a large rock above his head to administer the last blow, pauses briefly to look at the threatening heavens above him before casting the final stone.
Abruptly leaping more than a millennium forward, the setting moves to Ireland, 1209 A.D., and we get a short history lesson in another prologue. “Christianity now dominates Europe. On faith alone, Crusades are launched to recapture struggle to conquer the island. Deep in native Gaelic territory, a remote monastery shelters an ancient relic.”
Holland plays Brother Diarmuid, a young novice attached to a monastery near the Western Irish coast. The monks have been entrusted to preserve a treasured relic of St. Matthias, the martyr and apostle whose death opened the film. Enclosed in an ornate box and treated with the greatest reverence is the same large stone which had crushed the saint’s skull.
From the outside world, on a direct mission from the Pope, comes Brother Geraldus (Stanley Weber). His orders are to bring the relic back to Rome and invoke its powers against the Saracens in the Crusaders’ efforts to retake Jerusalem. Legend has it God struck Matthias’ murderers dead by lightning, and it’s believed that the rock (like the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark) holds deep mystical forces for smiting heathens.
Submitting reluctantly to the Papal decree, the abbot sends Diarmuid and a couple of other monks, including a formidable outsider known only as “The Mute” (Bernthal), to guard the relic on its pilgrimage. Joined by a contingent of Norman knights led by Sir Raymond de Merville (Richard Armitage), the band of pilgrims is attacked by tribal marauders who, it turns out, are minions of treacherous Sir Raymond, who has his own reasons to keep the stone.
The pilgrimage devolves into a race for survival as Diarmuid, The Mute and the near fanatical Geraldus flee Sir Raymond and his evildoers. Along the way, Diarmuid’s faith about the “relic” is severely tested as the toll on human life increases exponentially. The mysterious Mute, though, stays true to his cause, defending the young man and his precious charge at any cost.
The movie is striking—cinematographer Tom Comerford shot coastal scenes in Connemara and forest sequences in Belgium’s Ardennes forest. Steven McKeon’s score reinforces the striking visuals. Intelligent and exciting, Pilgrimage includes several action sequences unflinching in realism and savagery. Sir Raymond (a consummate villain) employs an instrument of torture picked up on his time in the Crusades that’s literally gut-wrenching. Think Braveheart on a smaller scale, and Pilgrimage should meet your expectations.
It’s one of those rare films where beauty and violence hum in tandem: a work of art and entertainment.