Written by: Billy Ray & Mark L. Smith
Directed by: Julius Avery
Starring: Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, and Mathilde Ollivier
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
“A thousand year Reich needs thousand year soldiers."
Horror films involving Nazis—and especially those that also boast some form of the reanimated dead—have often been a bundle of contradictions. Despite taking inspiration from one of the most horrific chapters in human history, something about this nefarious genre corner has seemed incongruously silly, almost as if it can’t be anything but a joke. It doesn’t mean it hasn’t yielded anything worthwhile, but, if I’m being honest, it always comes off as a provocative premise in search of an actual story. In almost every instance, there’s the initial juvenile train-wreck intrigue—“dude...dude we’ve got Nazi zombies”—followed by the sinking feeling there’s not much else to it. Enter Overlord, the latest offering from Bad Robot, to turn the tide by taking the exact opposite approach: while it’s true that much of its marketing has hinged on the Nazi zombie hook, it’s fair to say that Julius Avery’s effort is simply a harrowing, intense war movie that just happens to feature occult Third Reich chicanery.
Such an approach is obvious right off the bat, as the audience is instantly plunged in the thick of an aerial battle on the eve of D-Day. A group of American soldiers huddle together aboard a plane as its hull is riddled with bullets. Some don’t manage to survive as those same bullets rip through their flesh; some who do survive find themselves puking their guts out as their captain thunders orders amidst the hail of gunfire. Their mission—should they manage to even survive long enough to leap from the plane—is to advance on a German stronghold in a remote French village and cripple the crucial site in advance of the Battle of Normandy. A small platoon makes the leap, only to find their numbers immediately reduced when a German patrol ruthlessly guns down the captain, leaving a ragtag crew behind to complete a nearly impossible mission.
Once it settles in—and, man, do you need it to settle down after that remarkable, anxiety-inducing opening sequence—Overlord is a genuine men-on-a-mission movie, one that’s mostly preoccupied with the stressful intricacies of operating behind enemy lines. Its largest (and historically based) stakes are obvious, but it goes a step further by investing in more intimate ones as well, as this small band of brothers become the film’s center of gravity—even more so than all of the nastiness that eventually lurks in the bowels of the nearby Nazi compound. As gnarly and wild as Overlord is at times, it really works because Avery and company build around these characters before putting them through an even more gory and hellish ordeal.
The platoon is bolstered by an almost anachronistic sense of Greatest Generation dignity and decency, much of it channeled through Ed Boyce (Jovan Adepo), the group’s soft-spoken, underestimated novice. In a ragtag group, he’s perhaps the most unlikely among its ranks: at one point, a fellow soldier gives him shit for not being able to even kill a rat that intruded into their base during basic training, leading the rest of the soldiers here to doubt if he really has it in him to dispatch these ruthless Nazis if need be. It’s not quite a spoiler to reveal that he does have it in him, but Adepo remains steadfast with an understated performance that never loses sight of that crucial sense of decency that defines Boyce. Overlord rightfully supposes that a film teeming with cartoonishly evil Nazis deserves an appropriate counterbalance in this group of unabashedly decent Good Guys.
To that end, even the most hard-assed and merciless of the bunch, Wyatt Russell’s Ford, is only vaguely callous and gruff about the mission. He’s the proverbial voice of reason, the one who insists that any digression from the mission is an unacceptable risk—and yet, you’re not at all surprised when he recognizes the importance of protecting the citizens of the village under siege by the Nazis. He’s got a little bit too much of his old man’s rugged charm to buy him as a completely cold-hearted asshole, not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. In fact, one of Overlord’s most noteworthy triumphs is trusting in the camaraderie and chemistry that develops among the crew, which also sports the typical wiseass (John Magaro) and a sincere, wide-eyed photographer (Iain De Caestecker) to boot. Along the way, they come to specifically coordinate with Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier), a local girl who represents a feeble resistance against the German invaders. Along with her younger brother Paul (Gianny Taufer), she’s holed up in her home, where she does her best to keep the Nazis from taking her sick aunt (Meg Foster) away for their bizarre experiments.
As whispers about these experiments grow, so too do the tension and intrigue that drive Overlord. After all, this is what you’ve come for: spooked locals gossiping about gnarly occult mysticism, strange, almost inhuman noises from people hidden behind locked doors, and references to the deranged doctor orchestrating the chaos. Overlord obliges in piecemeal fashion, offering the audience small—but no less jolting—glimpses of sick victims whose rotting flesh hint at something ghastly lurking within the bowels of the Nazi lair. Eventually, Boyce finds himself tiptoeing through the place, bearing witness to twisted sights and sounds in a nice sequence where the effects crew to flexes their muscles by conjuring up demented, squirm-worthy gore gags that feel like something out of a lost Re-Animator sequel. A head impossibly gasps for air despite being detached from its body, while Boyce discovers the grisly fate of one of his buddies to introduce a welcome—if not obviously expected—horror wrinkle to this already intense war story.
Naturally, this turn of events dovetails seamlessly with the group’s initial goal of toppling the Nazi compound. While I would have been perfectly willing to watch this crew dispatch Nazis in straightforward fashion (it feels quite cathartic as this time, as you might imagine), it’s even more riveting with mad scientists and haywire experiments running amok. It’s perhaps still a bit more muted than expected: the mad doctor himself (Erich Redman) doesn’t quite live up to his reputation and leaves much of the over-the-top scenery chewing to the sadistic SS Captain (Pilou Asbæk) responsible for rounding up subjects. Asbæk is the only performer who really goes for it in the way you might expect from this sort of thing: he’s all bug-eyed menace, ranting and raving through grinning teeth about the superiority of the nightmare creatures he and his comrades are cooking up to create a “thousand-year army.” His final confrontation with Ford is similarly one of the few moments that threatens to unhinge into complete, utter schlock territory; where the rest of the climax mostly involves jolting encounters with the ravenous Nazi experiments (complete with a great shot of Ollivier roasting some of them with a flamethrower), the one-on-one showdown between Russell and Asbæk indulges the gore-soaked potential of a tale involving Nazi mutants.
For the most part, however, Avery is content to dial back and keep Overlord grounded in its historical—and very human—stakes. Instead of setting out to make a horror movie set during war, he’s made a gripping movie about the horrors of war. In truth, none of the horror stuff unsettles nearly as much as the cavalcade of unfortunately realistic wartime atrocities: bullets shredding bodies, a landmine annihilating a man just when he begins to wistfully talk about returning home from this nightmare, a haunting shot of dead paratroopers dangling from trees, the SS brutes sexually assaulting Chloe as part of their sick arrangement. Overlord does manage to counter this grimness with its eventual turn towards evocative, genre-tinted lunacy to strike a welcome balance: it turns out that there is life in this premise after all—so long as an astute filmmaker like Avery couches it into a legitimately compelling story first. Unlike much of the gangly, malformed Naziploitation that preceded it, Overlord doesn’t feel the need to bludgeon its viewers with puerile provocation. It rightfully recognizes that war is already a hell in need of few embellishments.
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