Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smith’s 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where it’s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. To reach that hamlet, he enlists the services of young monk Osmund (Eddie Redmayne), who agrees to this task so that he might reunite with his lover Averill (Kimberley Nixon). Their romantic relationship is, for Osmund, a betrayal of his oath to God, and thus his mission is partly an attempt to cling to a faith he has already begun to forsake. In Ulric, he finds an example of staunch piousness, though such devotion is cast as potentially hazardous—Osmund’s elder counsels that Ulrich “is more dangerous than the pestilence itself”—as well as accompanied by Ulrich’s more sobering belief that, in such a time of plague and hardship, the best one can do is simply ease the suffering of death.
With a scenario that recalls Nic Cage’s far more ludicrously executed Season of the Witch, Dario Poloni’s austere script charts the crew’s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God’s hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. No clarity befalls these grungy characters as they venture deep into the woods, where Osmund finds that Averill has been abducted (and probably killed), and the group is besieged by a band of marauding thieves, leading to a generally perfunctory sword battle notable for highlighting the limb-severing, flesh-eating brutality of these Christian warriors.
Fundamentalism and murderous ferocity are comfortable bedfellows in Ulrich and his men’s hearts, though Osmund remains more troubled about his relationship to the Almighty, an inner conflict that escalates once the troupe reaches its marsh-surrounded, supposedly demonic destination. Suspicions about malevolent activity continue to be promoted by Ulric, but at least initially, they’re dispelled by the warm greeting the men receive, as the village appears to be nothing more than a female-dominated commune of peace, prosperity, and health run by herbal healer Langiva (Carice van Houten).
For anyone familiar with The Wicker Man, this outward façade will hardly be convincing, and true to form, Black Death soon reveals the locale to be something more sinister, albeit not in ways expected by Ulrich and his men. Is Langiva a heathen witch or merely a radical atheistic con artist? Are her beliefs contradicted by her actions, or reinforced by them? Poloni’s deliberately paced tale allows such questions to hover over the despair-drenched proceedings, in which demands for renunciation of faith echo amid the bloodletting that soon becomes an end game for all sides. Holy salvation and praise for godless freedom turn out to be equally effective excuses for hangings, guttings, and decapitations, thus creating an overarching cynicism that the film conveys with a minimum of speechifying, allowing its narrative’s descent into madness drive home its critique of extremism and man’s true, cruel nature. A draggy midsection may temper the material’s into-the-abyss momentum, but with a mood of inevitable moral apocalypse, expertly fanatical performances from Bean and von Houten, and a theatrical poster that recalls the cover art for High on Fire’s Death Is This Communion, it’s a film infused with the sludgy, gloomy spirit of death metal.