Boasting a prettified brutality that rivals that of 300, Pathfinder also explores a similar theme, the manly pursuit of revenge at any cost. In the case of Marcus Nispel’s movie, set in snowy North America circa 1000 AD, the men are divided by race and morality. The invading, non-English-speaking Vikings are towering, mean, and heavily armored, while the Wampanoag Indians are nurturing, generous, and loin-clothed, as well as “nobly” in tune with nature.
Check their first impressions: the Vikings appear in an opening credits montage: fierce and anonymously murderous, helpless victims falling quite literally at their feet. The Native Americans, by contrast, are at first embodied by a single, gentle woman (Michelle Thrush) who stumbles on a Viking ship, broken and creaking on the shore. As she makes her way inside the wreckage, she’s serially startled by little-jump-shots of decaying bodies and skulls. At last she finds the reason she’s on screen: a 12-year-old Viking (Burkley Duffield) who survived the ship’s ruin and now gazes on her with eyes wide with fear, his sword pointed directly at her head. The woman — who happens to be partner to her tribe’s chief (Wayne C. Barker) — does the right thing: she embraces the frightened child as the camera dramatically pulls out and up. And then she brings him home.
Here she runs into consternation: the Wampanoag are not inclined to be kind to Vikings, given their experiences with these aliens. And so the boy’s legend begins to unfurl, hitting on the usual touchstones. Ghost, as he is called, is initially identified as an enemy by his very paleness: “His skin, his eyes,” observes one elder, “Like some kind of evil spirit that has never seen the sun.” He matures into a robust wannabe brave (Karl Urban), bland and determined to prove himself to those who see him as an outsider.
“If I cannot be a brave,” he worries, “Then who am I?,” helpfully articulating the film’s primary existential question. Ghost’s in-betweenness is illustrated in his swordplay training: having been schooled early on by his Viking father (shown in flashbacks to be an onerous sort who beats the boy when he refuses to kill a young Indian boy), Ghost keeps his skills and body taut in secret sessions, augmented by filtered light and mystical music.
Ghost’s chance to “prove himself” comes tragically: the Vikings (also known as the Dragon Men) attack, destroying his village, killing his adoptive parents and adorable little sister (Nicole Muñoz). This makes Ghost mad. Now all he wants is vengeance. And the movie makes sure he has plenty of chance to seek and achieve it.
Now orphaned for a second time, Ghost finds both support and doubt in another group of Indians led by Pathfinder (the venerable Russell Means, yet again offering wisdom to naïve youngsters. It happens that the old shaman’s daughter, Starfire (Moon Bloodgood), has a crush on the white boy. And how could she not? As Pathfinder emphasizes repeatedly, he’s sensitive, sad, and pained, as well as cunning and powerful. This makes him a typical reluctant hero, pressed into fearsome displays of violence despite his upbringing with the Wampanoag, confirming one brave’s early warning about him: “Blood runs true: he will turn into a monster like his father.” Conventional in most every way, Pathfinder wants it both ways: he is that monster, but it’s okay because he’s forced into it.
Obsessed with getting payback, Ghost isn’t ready to realize the import of Pathfinder’s estimation, who argues that this course will not yield the peace or sense of justice the young man desires. “You are still haunted by the demons of your past,” notes Pathfinder, recalling Means’ still resonant warning to those crazy spree-killing kids in Natural Born Killers (“Too much TV”). If Starfire isn’t precisely Mallory Knox, she is a valiant partner in mayhem. She defies her father to accompany Ghost on his traipse across the wilderness in order to set traps and, eventually, confront the Vikings (who are in turn chasing him, determined to avenge his violence against one of their own, as he gouged out one warrior’s eye). Starfire, along with a second sidekick, the seemingly goofy and wholly formulaic Jester (Kevin Loring), is a proficient fighter (and predictable occasion for still more vengeance).
Starfire’s weapons expertise, keen eye, and agility are especially helpful when it comes time for Ghost’s havoc-wreaking. Though the couple is captured by the Vikings and dragged over mountain trails in search of yet another tribe to devastate. Ghost keeps promising he’ll show the way and the dumb-as-a-bag-of-hammers Viking leader, Gunnar (Clancy Brown), keeps believing him. As the Viking world is a small one, apparently, Gunnar knew Ghost’s father, which means he can taunt the son with tales of their derring-do back in the day.
Ghost’s generation-next version of combat includes CGI-enhanced action: a fast-cut chase down a snowy mountain on shields and other sled-like implements; slow-motioned colliding, dismembering, and impaling; blood spurting from sliced necks and bashed heads. That Ghost accomplishes such feats and, no small thing, takes out entire squadrons of big bad Vikings makes him legendary. While the movie suggests he learns an appropriate lesson concerning the costs of vengeance, it’s also displayed by the representation of those costs — at once thrilling and arty (see also, Nispel’s remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre). While that sort of thematic doubleness is unsurprising in an action movie, the doubleness embodied by Ghost is slightly knottier. His whiteness complicates his heroism: while his capacity for victory is a function of his Viking background, even though he uses it to reject that background. And the Wampanoag only need wait another 600 years before the Pilgrims show up, along with death by disease and violence.