Movie opens up with a celebration in the Great Hall of Heorot, built by Hrothgar (Anthony Hopkins), king of the Danes. The Danes are celebrating the completion of the Hall, and theyre really boozing it up and partying quite loudly. Booziest of all is Hrothgar himself three sheets to the wind, half-naked, slurring his words and barely able to keep his balance. Hes somewhat repulsive and a bit of an embarrassment to his young wife, Queen Wealthow (Robin Wright Penn).
The revelers begin to chant, pounding the ground in time with the chanting. The camera pulls away from the Hall, to the snowy hills surrounding the kingdom, where the chanting and thumping have died out and all is silent. Finally, we pull into a cave miles away, where the chanting and thumping are suddenly heard at an almost unbearably loud level. We hear something in the cave screaming in pain, as if the noise is too much for it to bear.
Back to Heorot, where after-hours are still rocking full-blast. The large wooden entrance doors are blasted off their hinges, the halls torches blow out, and the hearth in the middle of the hall erupts in eerie blue flames. People start wigging, as we hear same the something from the cave screaming right outside Heorots doorway. As the Danes gird their loins and take up arms, the creature enters.
Its huge about 15 feet tall and vaguely humanoid in appearance, but clearly not all human. Its misshapen, deformed, and appears to have, instead of ears, some highly sensitive pads that serve as hearing organs. The screaming of the Danes seems to hurt the creatures ears and, enraged, he begins to tear the revelers apart, literally.
Eventually, the creature makes his way to Hrothgar, who, to his credit, didnt run away in a drunken panic, but held his ground. The King demands that the monster fight him, but the creature is unafraid. It simply takes a long almost quizzical look at Hrothgar and abruptly withdraws.
Back at his cave, the monster is chastised by his mother for killing men. We dont see his mother, though we catch glimpses of her reflection in the caves pool. We cant tell exactly what she is, but we see enough to know that she isnt even remotely human.
The dead are removed from Heorot and burned, and the Hall is sealed as a place of evil. Hrothgar confers with his majordomo Unferth (John Malkovich). We come to find that the creature is named Grendel (Crispin Glover), and that it has apparently plagued these Danes in the past. The King tells Unferth to put out the word that the man who slays Grendel will earn half of the kingdoms riches in return. The King pointedly states that they need a hero.
We cut to a ship at sea, the mainsail bearing the likeness of a large wolf. The ship is navigating a brutal storm, and at the prow we see our hero, Beowulf (Ray Winstone), and his lieutenant and good friend, Wiglaf (Brendan Gleeson). They are unfazed by the extremely rough seas, and discuss with much bravado how they are on their way to take up Hrothgars offer and slay Grendel, and how the glory of their deeds will live eternally.
They land on Danish shores and are taken to Hrothgar, who greets Beowulf warmly, apparently having known his father. Beowulf asks that Heorot be reopened, and Hrothgar acquiesces, providing Beowulf and his crew with food, drink and lodging as they rest in preparation for their battle.
In the revelry, Beowulf catches the eye of Queen Wealthow (and vice versa), although the two exchange nothing more than polite pleasantries. Unferth seems angered by Beowulfs presence, and calls him out. Seems that Unferth has heard a story about Beowulf being challenged to a swimming race and losing. How, Unferth asks, can Beowulf be expected to slay Grendel if he cant even outswim a human opponent in a simple race.
After trading some insults with Unferth, Beowulf admits the tale is true, but explains why he lost the race. As Beowulf narrates, in flashback we see him swimming in the ocean against his opponent, only to be set upon by a giant sea monster. As his competitor swims to safety, Beowulf fights and kills the monster, and another, and another each in increasingly fantastic fashion. It is implied that this tale is somewhat exaggerated, though not altogether untrue. The flashback shows us something that Beowulf pointedly does not tell the Danes that after fighting the monsters underwater, Beowulf came across a siren/mermaid/water nymph. Shes breathtakingly beautiful, in an otherworldly sort of way, and Beowulf cant take his eyes off her. This is foreshadowing, so keep it in mind.
We snap back to the present (no mention of what finally happened with the mermaid), and Beowulf and Unferth are still all pissy with each other. But the King breaks it up, retiring to his chambers while the Queen sings a song for the Geats (Beowulf and crew, a.k.a. folks from Sweden), though the song is clearly meant for Beowulf alone. When the Queen finally retires, and Hrothgar demands that she get in bed and produce an heir, Wealthow states that she could never lie with the King, knowing that you laid down with her. The King is duly shamed, though were not told exactly why.
The Danes all pack it in, leaving Beowulf and crew in the Hall to prepare for Grendel. Beowulf notes that he will fight Grendel hand-to-hand, since no weapon seems to harm the monster anyway. Further with the machismo, Beowulf strips naked, planning to fight Grendel al fresco (theres lots of Austin Powers-ish hiding of Beowulfs batch). The Geats start chanting Beowulfs name, and as in the beginning of the film, this noise reaches Grendels cave and he screams in pain.
Back to the Hall, the torches go out, blue flames burst out of the hearth, and something pounds at the reinforced doors. Grendel comes crashing through as before, killing Geats left and right until Beowulf comes into the battle, in all his nakedness. Beowulf is very strong and agile, and knows how to fight Grendel (suggesting that the sea monster story wasnt entirely a bunch of hooey), and they spar back and forth until Beowulf notices that Grendel reacts painfully to loud noises. He promptly jumps onto Grendels back and hammers at those sensitive earpads, which causes the monster extreme pain. As Grendel tries to retreat, his arm is caught in some chains, and Beowulf grabs hold, preventing Grendel from escaping just as the monster goes out the big main door. Grendels arm is pinned between the door and the doorjamb, and Beowulf, after victoriously announcing his name to the monster, rips off Grendels arm. Grendel flees to his cave.
Beowulf hold up the arm in victory, claiming hes killed Grendel, and most of the Geats cheer his name in celebration. Wiglaf does not, being much more concerned and upset with the lives lost in the battle.
Back in the cave, Grendel is dying. We hear his mother asking who did this to him, and Grendel says Beowulf before he dies. Grendels mom sings a lullaby as she carries her boys body to an altar of sorts. As she places the body down, her voice starts to crack and she sobs before starting to scream with rage.
Back in Heorot, Hrothgar is holding another celebration in honor of Beowulf. Unferth apologizes for doubting him, and Wealthow is even more smitten with their hero. The King gives Beowulf a golden horn, the standard of the Danish kingdom, as part of his reward. The horn is in the shape of a dragon, with a red jewel at the neck, and Hrothgar makes an off-hand remark about how hitting the neck is the only way to kill a dragon. Wiglaf is still upset, and goes down to the shore to prepare their ship for departure the next morning.
Later, the Geats are all passed out in the Hall after their celebration, and we get a first-persons view of Grendels mom as she flies into the Hall and tries to figure out which man is Beowulf. She correctly singles out the man who is the biggest and strongest, and appears to him in a dream as Wealthow, begging Beowulf to give her a son. Beowulf realizes he is dreaming and wakes up just as Wealthows face starts to turn into something demonic. He looks around the Hall to see that all of his men (except Wiglaf, who was down at the shore) have been slaughtered, their bodies strung from the rafters.
Later on, when people start to suspect that Grendel isnt really dead, Hrothgar explains that the Geats were killed by Grendels mother, about whom the King seems to know a great deal. When pressed about who is Grendels father, the King is evasive. It is implicitly clear that Hrothgar himself was Grendels father (explaining why Grendel didnt kill him earlier in the film). Unferth gives Beowulf his familys sword to assist him in killing Grendels mom.
Beowulf and Wiglaf set out for the cave to kill Grendels mom and avenge their men. Beowulf insists on going in alone, golden horn and Unferths sword in tow. The cave is dark, but the horn magically glows to light the way. Beowulf finds an alcove filled with gold, as well as a lot of human bodies, and the altar holding Grendels body. Suddenly, Grendels moms voice comes out of nowhere asking who Beowulf is, and we see her slowly rise out of the water, apparently having shape-shifted into human form.
And its Angelina Jolie essentially naked, okay? Not that she hasn't been naked in other films, but this is worth seeing nonetheless. Even though its CGI and all that, she still looks almost 100% real and thus scorchingly hot. The really naughty bits are covered in some kind of gold goo, but honestly, it really doesnt detract from the effect. Beowulf is rightly transfixed, in a manner very similar to when he saw the mermaid in his sea monster story. Seems Beowulfs easily susceptible to the charms of the mystical lady-creatures.
She admires how handsome and strong he is. Beowulf tries to run her through with Unferths sword, but it just passes through her like shes a ghost. She comes up to him and tempts him with the promise of a kingdom and eternal glory, only if he lay with her and give her another son to replace the one he took. She grabs hold of Unferths blade and it melts like butter. It is apparent that she could slaughter Beowulf at any time. Beowulf doesnt fight her as she sidles closer to him and grabs Hrothgars dragon horn. Theres clearly some kind of connection there, as she says that her promise is valid as long as she has that horn. And Beowulf seems on the verge of yielding to her offer.
Jump cut to Beowulf marching back into Heorot, tossing Grendels head at the Kings feet. Beowulf claims that he not only made sure Grendel is dead, but killed his mother, too. He claims he lost the horn while fighting her, and left Unferths sword in her body to make sure that she stayed dead. Hrothgar gives Beowulf a quizzical look, and suddenly exclaims that since he, Hrothgar, has no heirs, everything he has, including the kingship and Wealthow, will go to Beowulf when he dies. Hrothgar gets a party rolling at full tilt, then asks Beowulf for a private word.
The King asks Beowulf to recount exactly what happened with Grendels mom. Beowulf repeats the same blustery tale as before, but with a bit or wariness in his voice. The insinuation is that Beowulf isnt being truthful about what happened. When Beowulf refers to Grendel's mom as a hag, Hrothgar gives him a knowing gotcha! look and says Shes no hag, Beowulf. We both know that. But shes not my curse anymore; shes yours. Beowulf, realizing that the King knows exactly what happened, is visibly shaken, but says nothing. They rejoin the party, but Hrothgar excuses himself later and promptly jumps off the castle wall to his death. As Beowulf and Wealthow look down in horror, Unferth announces Beowulf as Denmarks new King.
We cut to Beowulfs face, older and grayer, wearing the Danish crown, surveying his soldiers on a field of battle. His soldiers are slaughtering the opposing army, and Beowulf seems almost saddened by this. It seems that Grendels mom made good on her promise, as Beowulf has enjoyed unsurpassed success and glory over the past 50 years, and Beowulf feels as his achievements are all empty and honorless gained from an unholy union with a monster, rather than on Beowulfs own skill and merit. Beowulf even dares one of the enemy soldiers to try and kill him, knowing yet disappointed that it wont happen (it doesnt).
Wealthow is Beowulfs Queen, but he has taken up with a younger girl, Ursula (Alison Lohman), who truly seems to care for Beowulf. Their relationship is kept on the hush-hush with the Queen, thought she knows about it anyway and doesnt say anything. In fact, Beowulf and Wealthow seem to be in a cold and loveless marriage, and she doesnt seem the least bit relieved or happy to learn that he came back from battle unharmed. When Ursula asks what happened in their marriage, Wealthow says Too many secrets. One would think that she is just as disgusted with Beowulf for having sex with Grendels mom as she was with Hrothgar.
One night, Unferth comes to the King with a slave in tow. The slave holds out his hands to reveal Hrothgars golden horn, which was found on the shore not too far from Grendels cave. Beowulf is freaked out, as he realizes that this means that the deal with Grendels mom is no longer in effect, and that trouble is sure to follow. Sure enough, one of the kingdoms outlying villages is attacked by a dragon one night, and almost all are killed. Unferth is spared so that he can pass on a message to the King that his son is waiting for him.
Beowulf knows that this dragon must be the spawn of his liaison with Grendels mom, and prepares to set out to fight him. He shares a tender moment with Wealthow where they admit that despite everything thats happened, they still love each other. Then he suits up with Wiglaf and they head out to the cave.
Again, Beowulf insists on going in alone. He hears a male voice trying to decide who it should kill first, the Queen or Ursula. Grendels mom appears, who tells Beowulf it is too late to make amends, take things back or renegotiate the deal. As she says this, a huge dragon appears in the caves darkened alcove and spews a blast of fire toward Beowulf. He dodges and escapes the cave just as the dragon flies out and heads toward Heorot. Beowulf grabs onto the dragon and tries to fight it mid-flight. Wiglaf follows on his horse. At some point, Beowulf gets a chain of some kind lashed around the dragon's neck (sorry I cant remember how). Oh yes I remember now. When Beowulf is on the back of the dragon, it nose dive into the ocean and plunges deep to the seabed. Beowulf is violently thrown off its back but luckily chances upon an old anchor with a heavy chain, grabs hold of it and jams it in the mighty jaws of the dragon just as it was about to surface above out of the ocean.
Beowulf isnt very successful in slowing up the dragon, and it starts to lay fiery siege to the castles perimeter. As it just so happens, both Wealthow and Ursula are talking on the castles rampart as the dragon approaches, and it makes a beeline for them. The dragon burns both of the ramparts exits, leaving the women trapped and with no place to hide.
Beowulf find himself dangling on the chain, swinging right in front of the dragons neck, where Beowulf spots a large glowing red area, just like the red jewel in Hrothgars horn. Beowulf stabs the red area, to find that it opens up into the dragons throat and also happens to give Beowulf a clear shot at the dragons heart. However, Beowulf cant reach the heart. Try as he might, hes always a few inches too far away. Knowing its only a matter of time before the dragon fries the women, Beowulf takes his sword and chops off most or his arm holing the chain. He loses his sword, but the partial separation of his arm from his torso gives him the extra few inches needed to grab the heart and rip it out.
As Beowulf squeezes the heart until it bursts, the dragon starts to fall from the sky, down the cliffs of the castle, taking Beowulf with him it its death throes. Wiglaf arrives to save the women. At the shoreline at the bottom of the cliff, both Beowulf and the dragon are sprawled on the beach. The tide washes over them both, and Beowulf, barely conscious, sees the dead dragon melt away to reveal a human form, looking remarkably like a young Beowulf covered completely in Grendels moms golden goo. The body is carried away by the tide just as Wiglaf arrives in search of the king.
Beowulf knows hes about to die, and reveals that he made arrangements for Wiglaf to become the new king. He beseeches Wiglaf to let folks know that Beowulf never killed Grendels mom (it seems Wiglaf kinda sorta always knew the truth on that, but loyal lieutenant that he is, followed Beowulfs story anyway). Beowulf also asks that Wiglaf make up no other stories or inflate the truth in recounting what led up to the king's death. Finally at peace, Beowulf dies.
He is given a Viking-ish funeral placed on a boat with sword in hand, and surrounded by offerings to the gods. The boat is set on fire and set out to sea. Wealthow and Ursula, grieving together, head back to the castle, as does everyone else, but King Wiglaf stays behind to watch, himself grieving at the loss of his friend.
As he watches the ship engulfed by flames, he sees Grendels mom appear still human and naked, but with demon wings and a serpent tail, descend onto the boat and give Beowulf a parting kiss. She descends into the water, and the boat then crumbles and sinks completely out of sight. Wiglaf seems to be unsurprised by her appearance.
What he is surprised to see is Grendels mom rising out of the water, much closer to the shore, looking straight at Wiglaf. And he looks down to see Hrothgars horn wash upon the shore. He picks it up and takes a few steps into the surf, eyes fixed on Grendels mom. She is looking at Wiglaf with the same sultry beckoning look that she gave Beowulf 50 years ago; Wiglaf seems just as transfixed as Beowulf was.
As the two gaze at each other, we are left to wonder whether Wiglaf resisted her, or if he gave in just as Hrothgar and Beowulf did, and thus started the cycle of the curse all over again.