Review: “Pathfinder” (1987)


*** Spoilers ***

The Oscar-nominated Pathfinder was a pleasant surprise. I knew almost nothing about it, save for the fact that it was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 1988 (pitting it alongside better known films like Babette’s Feast and Au Revoir les Enfants).

It has a simple, but engaging story that transports you to Scandinavia at around 1000 C.E. A young man’s family is murdered by warmongering rogues. He manages to escape, and stumbles into a camp of peaceful nomads. They treat his wounds, and upon discovering that the man is likely being pursued they start to abandon their commune. Meanwhile a select few including the young man himself wish to remain and fight, with the young man thirsty for vengeance.

Though that may be the bare-bones plot of Pathfinder, the film is really about the young man coming of age and finding his place in the world (hence the title ‘Pathfinder’). This is highlighted by the nomads’ old pathfinder/spiritual leader who sees a ‘bull deer’ for the third time in his life, and how at every time its appearance signifies a major turning point for him (the end of adolescence, the pinnacle of adulthood, and — it is suggested — the approach of death). After pulling off a heroic act, the young man bears witness the same bull deer. It suggests that not only is he moving out of adolescence and into adulthood (the first sighting of the deer), but that the cycle started and concluded around the previous pathfinder will continue with him.

It’s a very engaging movie. Nils Gaup’s direction is fairly conventional, and might use too many zoom-in shots, but nevertheless conveys an intimacy that brings you closer to the characters. This is especially important since you have the feeling that many of the characters will not survive the runtime, which leads me to perhaps my favorite aspect of this film: its unflinching nature

This movie does not shy away from showing and/or alluding to the most despicable acts of violence perpetrated against innocent life. It lets you see and imagine all of the horrors that the antagonistic group of warmongers are capable of. Gaup established this cold truth within the first few minutes when a dog, child, and two adults are murdered. The point is made blatantly clear that no matter how young, innocent, or vital to the plot a character is no one is safe.

Despite this it’s hard not to feel as though everything will work out. After all, as text states at the beginning of the film, the story of Pathfinder has been passed down for generations, and while that does not guarantee a happy ending it certainly makes it more possible.

I also liked how the filmmakers made the antagonists the most raw form of evil possible. There is no walking on eggshells. They are irredeemable; individuals who are undeserving of being called ‘human’. They not only kill to steal furs, but because they can. This makes them a simple but terrifying antagonistic presence throughout the film. 

There’s an obvious divide between good and evil, but since there are no restrictions on the evil it works far better than in most films. The rogues carry out the most heinous acts, which makes their threat extremely weighty and omnipresent. They might be unpredictable, but you know that whatever they do will be dastardly. 

Pathfinder might not be a masterpiece or a cinematic classic, but it’s hard to ask for much more than it is. It gives what it promises and is a thoroughly enjoyable watch.

Score: 3.5 out of 5

Sources Consulted:

“Pathfinder” imdb:

“Pathfinder” wiki:

Watched it on: Filmstruck (film, a summary, etc.)

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