REVIEW: Next-Level Bloodshed, Stunning Visuals Keep Centurion From Genre Oblivion
If you're like me, and you find yourself retreating to a safe place in your mind whenever human beings are being graphically decapitated on screen, you'll spend the majority of Centurion, horror maestro (The Descent) Neil Marshall's Roman bloodbath, on psychological lockdown. The more philosophical and intellectually detached among you might wait out the frequent plasmatic explosions from an interested distance, speculating on the cultural circularities implicit in evisceration as entertainment, or teasing out the film's bizarre but unmistakable urination motif. The rest -- the majority, I suppose -- will revel in every hyper-realistic goring, unconcerned with the irony of the bloodthirsty, second-century barbarism Marshall dwells on, giving the film its of-the-moment appeal.
Which is not to say Centurion doesn't hold a couple of surprises of the non-spear-in-the-crotch variety: Marshall divides the available sympathies in the story of the fate of a three-thousand man Roman legion charged with wiping out a tribe of Picts in what is now Scotland more evenly than is usually done in warrior epics. Although the side containing both Dominic West (as the legion's General, Virilius) and Michael Fassbender (as a rescued prisoner and centurion named Quintus) is obviously the side you want to be on, the Roman frontier is not something the men are terribly invested in; they fight because it's all they know, and they fight for each other.
"He's a ruthless, reckless bastard," one soldier says of Virilius, "and I'd die for him without hesitation." (Seconded!) The chaos of their engagement with the Picts, who resist them with a hellacious force born of the brutality of Roman rule, and the increasing desperation as their ranks are depleted, develops into what feels like a late-breaking theme: a soldier's disillusion with his cause.
"This is a new kind of war," goes a typically anonymous passage of Fassbender's narration. "A war without armor, a war without end." As an opener it puts a bit of a damper on what felt like an under-represented part of Roman history -- their presence in the north -- and a grizzled "Save yourself!" coming from a dying soldier about three minutes in compounds the fear that this will be another entry on the studio's classical action epic ledger, distinguishable mostly by its date of release.
And yet Marshall clearly has something else in mind: He has gone to extremes in shooting the film on its forbidding location in the middle of winter -- these Romans left the sandals at home -- and has done some imaginative fashioning of the Pictish people as part Viking, part painted warrior. Chief among them is a tracker named Étaine (Olga Kurylenko, who brings the badass), she of the mute, Ladyhawke glower and seriously smoky eye. After leading the legion into catastrophe and battling Virilius in one of the more successfully executed fight scenes, she leads the vendetta-driven hunt of the remaining handful of Romans through the highlands as they try to return home. An unscheduled stop in a secluded hut inhabited by the ravishing Arianne (Imogen Poots), a young woman banished by the Picts for supposed witchcraft, doubles Quintus's growing alienation from his supposed roots: "I am not one of them," she says. "They are not my people." Of course the encounter has more than a polemical purpose; only a sadist would separate such an uncannily matched set of cheekbones for long.
A massive production with some stunning visuals (Marshall is fond of aerial vistas that find his men marching along the misty, be-snowed crests of various mountains) and stunts to complement -- if not offset -- its bloody pyrotechnics, Centurion is part heroic mission film, part curious wartime picaresque. It's also a product of Marshall's idiosyncratic idea of period fidelity: The Pictish speak a form of Scots Gaelic, but the Romans speak perfect action movie -- "I knew we shouldn't have trusted that bitch"; "My mother's a f*cking comedian"; "Hopeless is the stuff of legend, and being a legend will get you laid." If the dialogue is rife with deadening clichés, the personalized attention to every sinew rip, clotted splatter, and esophageal gurgle reaches for a contrasting extreme of expressionistic vigor. Why yes, I believe that is how a head would hang off of a neck after the third chop of an axe! I do declare that is the sound a man would make as he takes a gutting knife to the neck!
It's this new language that Marshall is interested in, and if he can't get his actual characters to articulate themselves in any convincing way, their weapons speak it fluently. His attempt to blend exploitation extremes with B-grade gladiator pics, adding a political gloss for those who prefer a little wonk with their warriors, amounts to something like an obscure cinematic dialect. I suspect native speakers will embrace it with knowing gratitude and the unstudied will simply tilt their heads before tuning it out completely.