Content warning: mention of sexual assault
The Northman is the two-headed offspring of a black metal cover of “Immigrant Song” and a copy of Hamlet with half the pages torn out to be used as fuel for a funeral pyre for one of the many characters that die in this gory two hour Viking epic from writer/director Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse) and co-writer Sjon (Icelandic poet/musician/Bjork collaborator). With the exception of an interesting bit of subtext becoming text towards the film’s last act, The Northman is a stylish, yet straightforward revenge yarn done in the mode of an Icelandic saga with all kinds of other elements from classic genres, like epic, tragedy, odyssey, and maybe even a bit of sword and sorcery, served up in a wintry, eye-gouging, psychedelic slurry where Willem Dafoe going goblin mode and playing a scene-stealing and narrative-furthering Lear’s Fool is only the tenth or eleventh most interesting thing about the film.
The film’s plot follows the bloody path of Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard), a Scandinavian prince who sees his father Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) murdered by his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) in front of his own eyes. Afterwards, he sees Fjolnir carrying his mother Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) off and generally taking possession of the kingdom. This series of events causes Amleth to go into exile and join a warring band of Viking berserkers. While raiding a Rus settlement, he meets the enigmatic sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is part of a shipment of slaves being sent to Fjolnir in his new home of Iceland. Amleth joins them, and vengeance ensues with a side of wolves, he-witches, Valkyries, and a kind of proto-rugby game that is more Blood Bowl than World Cup.
From the opening narration featuring a wide shot of one of Iceland’s volcanoes, Eggers and his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke set The Northman in the epic mode invoking Odin, the Norns, and Valhalla and setting up the film’s big themes of revenge versus love and fate versus free-will. There are also supernatural elements, like various prophets and seers (Including one played by a strikingly costumed Bjork that sets up the last half of the film), a magic sword, Valkyries, and barrow-wights, that are predominantly played straight as the characters try to make sense of the world around them and their purpose in life. Robert Eggers and Sjon use gods and prophecies as background elements like how William Shakespeare adding spooky bits to Hamlet and his other plays, or even reaching further back in time when Homer used them as capricious game players in his poems. The inclusion of rituals like blood sacrifices, or Amleth and Aurvandill howling like wolves while belching and farting gives The Northman an alien feel in a similar manner to the use of dialect in Eggers’ first film The Witch.
Along with trippy, magick-filled bits, The Northman features visceral fight sequences that showcases Skarsgard’s physical approach to the role of Amleth as he is grounded down as the film progresses. After an extended underground ritual/mead hall sequence, Eggers and editor Louise Ford kick into thriller mode with arrows zipping right into Aurvandill’s body. His assailants are masked at first, but then, it’s revealed to be Fjolnir, and the story really starts to take off. Eggers and Ford use long takes to show the sheer violence of the world, and this can be seen most clearly in the raid on the Rus, or when Amleth basically becomes 9th century Iceland’s Punisher (or Zodiac killer) as a night fight sequence is shown from the POV of one of Fjolnir’s henchmen who couldn’t kill Amleth as a kid. The camera lingers on Alexander Skarsgard’s face and body as he exerts his way through carnage and labor for a chance at avenging his father, rescuing his mother, and reclaiming his kingdom even though he finds out his original home belongs to Harald of Norway in a darkly humorous exchange with a slave trader.
Although, much of the film is bloody spectacle, The Northman does carve out some quiet, intimate moments, and Robert Eggers and Sjon create a believable romance between Amleth and Olga that is helped a lot by the physical chemistry between Skarsgard and Taylor-Joy as well as the soft light and less dreary/hellish palette used by Blaschke. At the beginning, Olga seems like just another woman, who will be enslaved and raped, but she and Amleth basically bond over their weirdness with her pointing out that he’s a literal wolf in sheep’s clothes when he stows aboard the slave ship. He can drop his guard around her, and she plays the role of co-conspirator when he’s hatching his plan of vengeance. However, The Northman isn’t a romantic comedy, and their relationship ends up being much more strained and complicated than hanging out in an Icelandic hot spring.
The Northman is the cinematic equivalent of the Old Norse-derived words in the English language, including muck, dirt, skull, knife, and depending on the linguist, piss and shit. Alexander Skarsgard shows the physical strain of the quest for revenge and brings an animalistic energy to the fight sequences where he’s a wolf like the one he befriends in one of the film’s rare cute scenes. In both his storytelling techniques and meticulous attention to detail, Robert Eggers and collaborators like the aforementioned Jarin Blaschke and costume designer Linda Muir, create an immersive time capsule into a long forgotten time that may leave some wincing and flinching and others intrigued by a display of humanity at our most primal that is gently and later violently deconstructed towards the end of the film. Think Conan the Barbarian has an existential crisis…
Overall Verdict: 9.0