Before seeing The Northman, I already considered director Robert Eggers the most exciting director working today. His debut film, The Witch, is my favorite film of the 21st century thus far, and The Lighthouse is a fascinating follow-up. With The Northman, Eggers is three for three. Based on the same Scandinavian legend that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Northman offers the director a broader canvas for his singular cinematic style — one ripe with long, fluid camera movements, powerfully engrossing music and sound design, admirable attention to historically accurate detail, and hauntingly effective occultist overtones. Despite the film’s epic scale, the storytelling is remarkably simple and streamlined in comparison to his first two films. It’s not as intimate, psychological, or profoundly disturbing as The Witch or The Lighthouse. But it’s every bit as atmospheric, evocative, and seductive.
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth, a Viking prince who, as a boy, witnesses the murder of his father (Ethan Hawke) at the hands of a crown-hungry uncle (Claes Bang). Young Amleth (played by spirited Oscar Novak) manages to escape a similar fate, only to see the pillaging of his village and the kidnapping of his queen-mother (Nicole Kidman). His vow becomes a mantra: Avenge his father, save his mother, kill his uncle.
Years later, Amleth has grown into the form of hulking Skarsgård, having fallen in with a tribe of berserkers who have nurtured his animal instincts and thirst for blood. After an especially well choreographed village pillaging sequence, Amleth enters the charred remains of a building full of men, women and children the berserkers trapped and burned alive. There a mysterious seeress (a cameo from Icelandic singer Björk) reminds him of his mission, instructing him where to find his uncle and a supernatural blade for completing the task.
The Northman loses a little momentum as Amleth stows away with slaves to Iceland, where he infiltrates his uncle’s household unrecognized. He develops a partnership with Olga, a tough but cunning fellow prisoner played by The Witch‘s Anya Taylor-Joy. Together, they plan their revenge on their master, providing The Northman with an ever-escalating, viscerally thrilling and cinematic-as-fuck second half.
In all three of Eggers’ films, the director is the true star. None of these movies would be anything near the same experience without him. But his casts are always solid. Skarsgård transforms into a true beast at times, besting many other actors who’ve played similar roles — like Karl Urban in Pathfinder, or Mads Mikkelsen in Valhalla Rising. His physical commitment to the role is equally impressive. Kidman and Bang have some powerful moments, while Hawke and Willem Dafoe (as Hawke’s jester/magician) are especially effective in their limited screen time. The best acting in the film is between Skarsgård and Taylor-Joy. Their relationship is one of mutual respect as much as love. In a cinematic landscape so full of bullshit romances, this one really works for me. The film’s other secret weapon is the score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, which features period instruments, fierce percussion, and haunting choral work.
Reviewing movies is usually an exercise in comparative literature. So it’s always exciting when a film offers something for which there’s little to compare. The Northman is like no other film in its depiction of raw, primal, masculine rage. There’s an early scene in which Dafoe and Hawke welcome Amleth to manhood in an underground cavern where they take hallucinogens and act like dogs — belching, farting, and lapping up water on all fours. It’s a beguiling moment — ridiculous but honest, celebrating the primitive aspects of masculinity. The experience is meant as a gift to the boy, something to help him throughout his trials and tribulations as a man. Indeed, we later see Skarsgård in a similar ritual around a bonfire with his berserker brothers — again on all fours, howling in blood-curdling commitment at the moon. Only now the animalism has a deadly intent. The next morning’s village raid is a savage one, with Skarsgård going so far as to rip a man’s neck out with his teeth.
These days, watching men ‘zone out,’ transgressing to an animal state, is something usually reserved for horror movies. The Northman has its share of horrific moments, but it also takes place in a time when this masculine ferocity was a gift — a superpower that won conflicts and saved loved ones. At a time now, when we devalue and punish such displays of rage and violence, it’s interesting to a see a film that reminds how long these biological instincts and cultural reinforcements have been with us. What was once a blessing is now a burden, with fallout we are still struggling with as a society.
At my screening, I and two friends sat in front of a young man who could not contain his appreciative awe every brutal step toward the film’s finale. I didn’t mind his repetitive exclamations of “Dude!” I found them fascinating. I think this man climaxed at the same time the movie did, with two buck-naked hunks sword fighting on an erupting volcano. One of my friends later said he wasn’t sure he wanted to like the same movie this frat boy got off on. What a telling statement. I, too, particularly as a man, feel some embarrassment by The Northman. But I can’t deny how much I adore it.
Any film that makes me question myself is an instant favorite.