Wounded Warriors

The Contractor
Directed by Tarik Saleh ◆ Written by J. P. Davis ◆ Produced by Basil Iwanyk and Erica Lee ◆ Distributed by Paramount Pictures

The Northman
Directed by Robert Eggers ◆ Written by Sigurjón Sigurðsson and Robert Eggers ◆ Produced by Regency Enterprises ◆ Distributed by Focus Features

Director Tarik Saleh’s debut English-language film, The Contractor, asks big questions about opioid use in the U.S. military and about the government’s duty to care for its own wounded soldiers.

The film begins with a soldier named Harper being dismissed from military service, without adequate retirement funds or medical insurance, after a recent physical exam revealed opioids in his system. He’s contacted by an old colleague who explains that another vet has set up a private army where Harper can make good money.

He takes the job and finds himself carrying out an obscure mission in Germany, during which he kills a man for his motorbike and buzzes off into traffic before the police can arrest him. The rest of the film is a chase as Harper desperately tries to escape involvement in shady schemes and to return to his family. He relies on his special-forces training to escape from one danger after another.

When the dust settles, Harper finds out he’s been used by Big Pharma to keep their opioid trade flourishing. He then decides to avenge himself on the culprits who have drawn him into this scheme.

The film contains plenty of action and intrigue, but it gets to be almost too much of that, and one can grow weary of it before the film reaches its conclusion. Still, it’s worth seeing and can be streamed; the performances, in and of themselves, are stellar all-round, with Chris Pine in the lead role and Ben Foster as his military buddy especially effective together in their second teaming, after the 2016 bank-heist film, Hell or High Water.

The film has a special relevance for me in that it dramatizes the consequences of opioid addiction, a condition I’ve experienced twice myself. Opioids are essential to surgical interventions of various kinds including the open heart surgery I had in 2004, without which I wouldn’t be writing this review.

I also went to see a film about another kind of warrior, The Northman, believing it was based either on Hamlet or on the Norse legend composed in Latin by Saxo Grammaticus around 1200 AD. What I saw instead was a confused and confusing tale in which ninth-century Scandinavians roar a lot as they run about, slaughtering weaponless villagers.

Nicole Kidman plays a queen named Gudrún, whom the director, Robert Eggers, has unaccountably contrived to make ugly, both physically and morally. Like everyone else in the film, she’s a wanton murderer. She hates her son for having been imposed upon her by her husband, whom she seems never to have loved. The film is filled with rage depicted in stygian scenes so dark as to be barely perceivable when they are not punctuated with bursts of flame, around which the Danish warriors chant and dance with wild abandon when they’re not beheading and disemboweling their victims.

These techniques push the viewer deep into an aesthetic funk. I shouldn’t have been all that surprised; Eggers’ earlier film, The Lighthouse, is another violently silly tale, this one focused on the loneliness of womanless lighthouse keepers.

The Northman title character is played by a hulking Alexander Skarsgård, who goes about nearly naked for most of the story, glowering at everything. His one escape from the frigid dreariness of the landscape is his girlfriend, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who comes up with a plan to escape to the Land of Rus.

The film called to mind The Vikings, the 1958 Kirk Douglas-Tony Curtis epic, most memorable for the hawk attack Douglas’s character suffers early in the film, requiring him to wear a black eye patch that immensely intensifies his normal scowl. Skarsgård manages to avoid this inconvenience, although in one scene, pesky ravens do give him some trouble.

That’s about the only similarity the two films share, however. Despite my duty as a reviewer, I seriously considered walking out on The Northman about 40 minutes in. I’m not unusually squeamish, but there is a limit as to how many knifings and impalements I can endure. But my son, who liked the film, was with me, so I stayed joylessly to the end. De gustibus non est disputandum.

Image: Alexander Skarsgård as the Viking warrior Amleth in The Northman (Focus Features)

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