A film review by Craig J. Koban May 3, 2022

THE NORTHMAN jjj
½ 

2022, R, 137 mins.

Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth  /  Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrún  /  Claes Bang as Fjölnir the Brotherless  /  Ethan Hawke as King Aurvandil War-Raven  /  Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga of the Birch Forest  /  Gustav Lindh as Thórir the Proud  /  Elliott Rose as Gunnar  /  Willem Dafoe as Heimir the Fool  /  Björk as The Seeress  /  Rebecca Ineson as Halla the Maiden  /  Kate Dickie as Halldora the Pict  /  Ralph Ineson as Captain Volodymyr

Directed by Robert Eggers  /  Written by Eggers and Sjón

Leave it to director Robert Eggers to take command of the historical epic genre and infuse his own intoxicating  brand of strange and hallucinatory energy into it.   

Perhaps the simplest way to describe THE NORTHMAN is that (a) it's a Viking era piece, (b) it's a revenge thriller and (c) it's a work of pure maniacal and frequently absurd fantasy with slasher tendencies.  

Okay, so maybe that's a bit of a complex descriptor for his latest endeavor, but nothing that Eggers has done recently fits neatly into compartmentalized boxes.  

His last film in 2019's THE LIGHTHOUSE (just his second feature) was a maritime period horror flick that dabbled into mermaid mythology (trust me, that's just scratching the surface) and his rookie debut in 2016's THE WITCH was a brilliantly macabre slow-burn horror thriller that dealt with 17th Century Puritans dealing with a supernatural forces.  And now we have THE NORTHMAN, another film set in the past that marries fact and make-believe in equal measure - but boasts a budget several times more than what Eggers has had before - that somehow maintains an art house sensibility while maintaining the filmmaker's weirdly esoteric fingerprints.  Even though I'll concede that the film runs a tad too long for its own good, Eggers' third effort behind the camera is made with astonishing levels of craft and works on a primal level of gut punching visceral impact.  It's positively dripping with grungy atmosphere, staggering visual flourishes, and, yes, Eggers' thankless penchant for working with genres troupes while not slavishly adhering to their templates at all.   

He seems to relish working in a newfound cinematic sandbox that a larger budget (approximately $90 million) has afforded him, but it's kind of astounding the type of storytelling economy he strives for here.  All in all, THE NORTHMAN is essentially a telling of Shakespeare's HAMLET, but with Vikings.  In point of fact, the Scandinavian legend that's he's telling here of AMLETH actually inspired the writing of HAMLET, but let's not split hairs here.  THE NORTHMAN is set in the early 900s and concerns itself with a prince seeking bloody comeuppance on his dreadful uncle that brutally murdered his father in cold blood...and then he married his mother as an added kick to the baby makers.  Like HAMLET as well, Eggers' film dabbles in the occult and supernatural, not to mention witchcraft and magic.  On these levels, the film also reminded me considerably of CONAN THE BARBARIAN (especially for how uncompromisingly hard hitting it is with the underlining material).  THE NORTHMAN, to its credit, amalgamates its multiple sources of literary and cinematic inspiration while homogenizing history and dark mythology with relative fluidity and poise.  And, best of all, it's brutally unflinching in most regards; those with weak stomachs may wish to avoid this one. 

But, yeah, as for the story?  It's as basic and elemental as they come (which, I'll get to later, is why I don't think the film entirely earns or requires a near two and a half hour running time).  Young Amleth is the son of Queen Gundrun (Nicole Kidman) and King Aurvandill (a grisly and raspy Ethan Hawke), the latter of which is returning home after a long absence.  Tragedy strikes this royal family when the King's scheming brother in Fjolnir (Claes Bangs) betrays his sibling and their whole family by double crossing them and viciously beheading Aurvandill.  The only survivors of this vile sneak attack are the pre-teen Amleth and his mother, who Fjolnir takes against her will to be his new bride.  The newly self-anointed King orders Amleth to be found and killed, but the child miraculously escapes and, once a safe distance away, cries to the heavens and proclaims that he will seek revenge on his fallen father...no matter how long it takes. 

 

 

Well, for poor Amleth it does indeed take a long time, as the film flash forwards to him as a battle hardened Adonis-like adult (now played by the positively ripped and ferociously intense Alexander Skarsgard, in one of his best roles), whose lustful thirst for vengeance has so consumed him that he has become an all-out agent of animalistic fury.  But despite his obsession to murder his uncle, Amleth is patient and takes his time, fully realizing that he has to meticulously plan and execute his plan of attack at just the right moment.  Utilizing a fairly ingenious, but highly risky plan, Amleth goes deep undercover and poses as a lowly slave that Fjolnir eventually takes in to add to his labor force and without being none the wiser as to his real identity.  Also unaware is his now aging mother in Gundrun, who - to Amleth's horror - has stayed with Fjolnir all this time and even bore his children.  Amleth knows that he may need another inside person to assist him on his clandestine mission, so he hooks up with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who also works on the King's Icelandic farm and sees Amleth's cause as a righteous one.  But before Amleth can truly strike, he needs to get possession of an Excalibur-like mystical sword that only he can wield while simultaneously having to deal with some shocking personal revelations that make his task all the more challenging to complete.  It soon becomes clear that just killing his uncle and those under him won't be as easy as he thought. 

Even though THE NORTHMAN could not be anymore different in terms of setting and period than THE WITCH and THE LIGHTHOUSE, it nevertheless makes for a highly relevant companion piece to those pictures in terms of all of them having endlessly bleak and morose worlds where characters have to come to grips with the supernatural madness that frequently surrounds them.  I think it would be deceptively easy for anyone to criticize Eggers for selling out in terms of enthusiastically embracing the types of budgets and scales reserved for blockbuster entertainment.  Thankfully and thanklessly, Eggers has more tools and resources at his disposal, but it in no way has stymied his creativity or has overwhelmed his trademark aesthetic flourishes.  Having more money has not make him go soft in the slightest, because much of THE NORTHMAN is just a devilishly twisted and depraved as anything else he's made for lesser funds.  Eggers - arguably now more than before - finds pleasure in making his audiences feel uneasy and off balance.  The revenge trajectory of his tale hits familiar beats, to be sure, but his film is never dull, rarely boring, and doesn't neatly go from first act to last with contrived predictability.  To be fair, Eggers has to adopt some of the conventions of the genres he's appropriating here, but his viewfinder and vision for this film is uniquely his own.  THE NORTHMAN is just as blood-soaked - if not more - than just about any other revenge thriller (historically based or not), but Eggers' unbridled commitment to conceiving something so distinctively strange and feral is what segregates itself from the pack.  This is as dirty, dreary, bleak, and gory of a historical epic as I've seen, but the film lunges forward with such unabashed conceptual passion that it becomes hard to overlook despite the rampant savagery on display. 

And what a breathtakingly savage visual marvel we have here!  Those that ate up the surreal atmosphere of undulating dread that typified THE LIGHTHOUSE and THE WITCH will have much to dine on again; Eggers is so meticulous when it comes to world building, moody cinematography, dreamlike (and nightmarish) imagery, and haunting sound design that his films become easy to get lost in and hard to escape from.  With the exquisite eye of cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, Eggers makes the widescreen vistas of Iceland here simmer with untamed and hostile allure, not to mention that he allows his camera to linger on moments and sequences that truly count, like an apparent draw-dropping one-shot take following pre-slave Amleth and his band of marauders absolutely ravaging their way through a village and its dwellers.  It's masterfully pulse-pounding, eerily suspenseful, and chillingly violent in equal measure, all complimented by the chilling sound design work by Robin Carolan and the primeval music score by Sebastian Gainsborough, all of which conspires together to cement THE NORTHMAN as a historical picture that's relatable, but feels otherworldly all the same.  And as the film hurtles towards the inevitable showdown between nephew and uncle it's done mostly is murky silhouettes against the backdrop of an exploding volcano spewing out lava.  Ridiculously improbable?  Yes.  Tremendously impactful?  Unequivocally.  I admire when directors just go for it with reckless abandon.  Eggers does so here...and then some.   

It's easy to be so swept up in the rich and bizarre visual tapestry of this film to the point where one overlooks the actors, and Eggers is wise to let this film be a performance showcase through and through.  Obviously, this is Skarsgard's picture to fully own and shape, and he's such a brute physical force of raw nature here that it becomes hard to see any other actor commanding the screen and this role as effectively as he does.  He's matched nicely by the softer presence of Taylor-Joy as his accomplice and eventual love interest that doesn't fall victim to defenseless damsel in distress formulas.  Claes Bangs makes his monstrous villain here much more fully layered and complex than I was frankly expecting, which spills over to Kidman's work as the long beleaguered Queen and mother to Amleth.  Even though she maybe doesn't have as much screen time as I would have liked, Kidman is given one positively show stopping confrontation with her adult son that layers on added intrigue into the central story while showing how good the actress can be when given just the right juicy role.  Oh, and Eggers' THE LIGHTHOUSE star Willem Dafoe shows up as a creepy shaman-like figure that once again proves that letting the actor go full beast-unleashed mode is better than any visual effect. 

THE NORTHMAN is, alas, just too long and protracted to deserve a worthy qualitative placement on the upper echelon tiers of Eggers' last two films.  When it boils right down to it - and, again, considering the mostly straightforward story arc contained here - this film runs out of momentum gas on occasion and would have been pitch perfect at around two hours. I also think that Eggers' film here pales a tad in comparison to the similar (to a degree) melding of history, mythology, and fantasy that made David Lowery's THE GREEN NIGHT so remarkably game-changing (coming in the wake of that film will lead to unavoidable chatter).  I consider THE NORTHMAN to be the lesser of Eggers' three films thus far on his resume, but (big but) this is still an astounding filmmaking achievement that beckons for big screen consumption (I screened this via the best Laser Ultra projection and Dolby Atmos sound presentation available in my city and it was flat-out incredible as an visual/auditory experience).  In an age when people are scrutinizing their choices to venture back to the cinema more and more, it's welcoming to be reminded of bold and audacious works like THE NORTHMAN that require theatrical viewing for the best impact.  And to be lured back to darkened theaters, we need more gripping cinema like this and examples that are oddly accessible, but don't slavishly hold our hands either.  This Viking epic will stay with me for an awful long time. 

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