When she stepped on set and became that character, it was a powerful thing to watch. She was just magnetic. She hypnotized everyone. Nobody can do that kind of sultry character as well as Jolie.
— Robert Zemeckis
Poor Grendel. All the grim, gooey giant wants is a little wintertime sleep, and his loud and self-loving neighbors just can’t shut up. Out of work warriors with too much time on their hands, they roast pigs, roar for mead, and engage in sloppy sex displays, happy to serve as their king’s favorite “violators of virgins and brave brawlers.” One or two even ponder their futures: recent Christian convert Unferth (John Malkovich) makes a sales pitch to his wide-eyed companion. “After you die,” he slithers, his tone utterly Malkovichian, “you wouldn’t really be dead, providing you accept Him as the one and only God.” The noise wafts over the snowy Danish countryside, over trees and up a mountainside, into the cave where Grendel (Crispin Glover) lies restless. A bloodshot eyeball pops open, and he begins to whine, a gloomy gurgle that tells you all you need to know about his cheerless existence.
With this, Beowulf offers a rare glimpse of the monster’s perspective, his desperate, angry, and perversely innocent, unable to fathom just why these puny people seem to go out of their way to annoy him. And so, there’s not much to be done except to head on down the mountain and eat those rowdy revelers, which is what Grendel does, posthaste.
The attack is swift and brutal, effects enhanced if you see Beowulf in glorious 3D, so swords, limbs, and blood spurts fly in your direction. The attack also ends this weirdly vulnerable creature’s perspective, and begins a more standard fixation on manly foibles and heroics.
Taking Grendel’s violence as a sign that he and his kingdom are cursed, King Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins) seals the big old drinking hall and tries to keep his subjects quiet. His wife Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn) might be looking at him askance during his proclamation (“No singing, no merrymaking of any kind!”), but it’s hard to tell, as her eyes — despite visible advances in the “performance capture” technology since The Polar Express, are still off, not quite focused and too static. What is clear is that the folks are scared. When Unferth submits they should pray to the “Roman Christ” for help, Hrothgar dismisses such nonsense. “What we need is a hero,” he proclaims.
Cut to the answer to that non-prayer, the cocky Viking Beowulf (Ray Winstone), braving a storm at sea en route to Hrothgar’s kingdom. Fond of his own six-pack abs and especially of naming himself (“I am Beowulf!”) as if it’s a battle strategy, Beowulf is a one-man version of the oh-so-homosocial 300. He arrives with 13 brawny types plus admonitory buddy Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson), granting Wealthow someone else on whom to cast her maybe-sideways look. When Beowulf says he’s come to kill “this troll of yours” and taste the king’s apparently renowned meat, Wealthow is skeptical: “There have been many brave men who came to taste my lord’s meat!” Hmm, you might wonder, just what is this queen up to, anyway?
It turns out that, for all their bellowing and chest-thumping, the boys of 705 AD have precious little say over their own fortunes — good or ill. And while Beowulf comes to believe that “brave men are the monsters now,” women are frightening by definition. When Wealthow rejects celebratory advances by the vainglorious and pathetic Hrothgar, he stamps his filthy foot and goes along, still paying for an indiscretion committed many years before.
It’s not so much that women are always right or good (though Wealthow seems so), but that men are relentlessly thick-headed. Carrying on like mead-swilling frat boys, all are determined to have their way, or at least pretend they have it. In this Beowulf is the model man, outrageous and arrogant, and so admired far and wide. He meets his destiny — one he just loves to broadcast — by way of Grendel. For their showdown, Beowulf takes a predictably brash initiative, stripping off his clothes to give the queen an eyeful and face Grendel on something like “equal terms.” The result is a spectacular battle that draws attention to Beowulf’s mighty penis without showing it (a comic series of objects block your view), while also nodding to Ray Harryhausen’s men-and-monsters fantasies. And yet, this interspecies interaction is only warm-up for what’s to come. A more thrilling sequence near film’s end pits Beowulf against a flying dragon, and oh yes, before that, he’s got to deal with Grendel’s mom.
If Wealthow is the film’s sign for women wronged (not to mention bored: it’s unclear what she does to pass the time in her husband’s bleak realm), Grendel’s mother represents women enraged and vengeful. Back in the olden days, she was an aged crone. In this aimed-at-young-male-gamers version, she’s Angelina Jolie, naked. She’s a water demon, complete with digital tail, tentacles, and artfully arranged mud. (The film, being “animated,” has managed a PG-13 rating despite a full-on look at her naked form, her ungodly long legs supported by feet shaped into permanent, old-school-Barbie-style high heels.)
She’s plainly done up to do in men, especially men like Beowulf, who think they’re not only smarter and better than other men, but also that they have righteous authority over women. And she’s got a particular bone to pick with Beowulf, responsible for Grendel’s demise. (As Grendel lies dying in her arms, he murmurs, “He was so strong, so strong.”) She devises a nasty payback scheme, the sort that’s impossible to resist if you’re the flawed hero of a mythic lesson on hubris. During the seduction scene (“Enter me and leave me”), Grendel’s mom expertly strokes Beowulf’s sword as well as his ego. “I know that beneath your glamour, you’re as much a monster as my son,” she says. Immature and self-centered, Beowulf succumbs even as he believes he’s winning. She’s wily and mysterious, she’s surely odious. More important, he’s careless and dim, exactly ready to learn his lesson.