An extraordinary premise gets a slightly ordinary workout in Felix Randau’s meticulously mounted but narratively simplistic “Iceman,” an imagining of the last days in the life of the man we now know affectionately as Ötzi, whose mummified remains were found in the Alps in 1991, and were subsequently discovered to date back to 3300 B.C. It’s an anthropologically depressing but dramaturgically promising fact that the oldest European we’ve found apparently died a violent, unnatural death: He had an arrowhead lodged inside him, four different types of blood on his body and likely died from blunt force head trauma. But while Randau’s script might more or less account for these findings, there’s little additional texture or philosophy to the film. “Iceman” is a straight-up, linear revenge story, a kind of Chalcolithic “Taken,” in which our hero’s very specific set of skills include fire-building, deer-hunting and the economical reuse of arrows.
The film’s most daring flourish is that the dialogue is in early Rhaetian — an extinct language believed to have been in use at the time in the region — and it eschews subtitles entirely. “Translation is not required to understand this story,” reads a pre-title, suggesting that either the filmmaking will be so exceptional that subtle cues can be delivered non-verbally, or that the story will be fairly schematic. Disappointingly, the latter turns out to be the case, although the widescreen vistas of the craggy, snowladen Alps, and the appropriately swooping and soaring score at least give the slender tale an epic backdrop.
He-who-will-be-Ötzi-in-5,300-years’-time (named Kelab in press notes, and played by German actor Jürgen Vogel), is the leader of a small Alpine clan, introduced to audiences during a bout of Neolithic coitus interruptus: His neighbor’s wife is in the throes of labor, and when she dies in childbirth (Randau lays down a marker with rutting sex and agonized death occurring in the first couple of minutes), Kelab is called upon to perform an arcane ritual over her body. It involves a smooth-hewn wooden box that remains a mystery until the end, though it’s not too much of a spoiler to say that its contents aren’t particularly edifying; the box suggests the invention of the MacGuffin predates that of the wheel.
After this dramatic beginning, there’s a breather as life in the little enclave goes on, giving the impression of Kelab as a doting dad and happily monogamous partner to Kisis (Susanne Wuest), whose name, when shouted out, sounds distractingly like “Jesus.” But when Kelab goes off to hunt, a trio of miscreants led by Krant (André Hennicke) descend on the settlement, rape and murder Kisis, and kill everyone else in sight before making off with the Sacred MacGuffin. The violence here is visceral, from throttlings to arrows that fly like bullets to the burning alive of two small children. This last deed occasions a glimpse of remorse from Krant, notable because it’s one of the only times any of the characters betrays anything but the most basic of emotions.
Kelab, seeing the smoke from the fire, pounds down the hillside, but arrives too late to save anyone except the neighbor’s baby, who had been overlooked by the marauders. Having laid Kisis and his own young son to rest, Kelab embarks on his mission of revenge, only slightly hampered by suddenly being, essentially, a single father. This quest will take him into the snowy peaks, and bring him into contact with travelers and settlers alike, whom he must sort into friend or foe categories like a “Survivor” contestant working out his system of alliances.
One of the downsides of the undeniably brave formal choice to reject subtitling is that it’s difficult to get to know personalities, and it’s even hard to work out which guttural word might be a name. Add to this the feature-obscuring costuming and styling, and DP Jakob Bejnaworicz’s pictorial framing which is often set some distance away from the characters (the better to include more of the dramatic surroundings), and it’s tough not only to invest much emotion in them, but to differentiate between them at all. Mentally, you may find yourself dubbing them according to who they look like — “Richard Harris,” “‘Game of Thrones’ wildling” “Sissy Spacek,” “Jim Caviezel” — which is a little disorienting when a white-haired, Moses-like character shows up looking like Franco Nero and you suddenly realize he is Franco Nero.
Less exciting than Mel Gibson’s Mayan foot-chase movie “Apocalypto,” but moreso than Jean-Jacques Annaud’s “Quest for Fire,” the film’s 96 minutes feel longer, and its beats are blunt, but the action scenes are all well-staged and often impressively gruesome. So perhaps we can simply adjust the Hobbesian summation of life in primitive times to describe “Iceman” as nasty, brutish and not quite short enough.