Directed by Robert Eggers (The Witch) – Screenplay by Robert Eggers & Sjón.
Inspired by Icelandic sagas and Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum legend of Prince Amleth of Jutland (the latter of which was supposedly the inspiration for William Shakespeare’s Hamlet), The Northman is a $90 million budgeted epic viking revenge film from Robert Eggers, the director of the relatively low-budgeted indie ‘art house-esque’ horror films The Witch and The Lighthouse. It is a dirty, violent, blood-soaked, and brilliantly-made film, and it is easily Robert Eggers’ most accessible film, even though it definitely isn’t your average big-budgeted action film.
The Northman follows Prince Amleth (played by Alexander Skarsgård) as he goes on a wild viking revenge quest to avenge his father, save his mother (Queen Gudrún, played by Nicole Kidman), and kill the man that beheaded and usurped his father, King Aurvandill (played by Ethan Hawke). But this isn’t just any man. The usurper is his envious uncle Fjölnir (played by Claes Bang). To find his way back to Fjölnir, who has taken Amleth’s mother as his wife, Amleth must disguise himself as a slave and smuggle himself on board a ship headed for Iceland, where he aims to finally fulfill his destiny.
Like I said previously, this is undoubtedly Eggers’ most accessible film. I don’t say that because this film holds your hand, rather I say that to indicate that it is not as impenetrable as I know some people think The Lighthouse is (though I’ve liked all of Eggers’ films thus far). In fact, I think it’s fair to call this Eggers’ own Gladiator or Conan the Barbarian. However, make no mistake, those films will be easier for mass audiences to digest. The Northman is weird in a way those aren’t quite, and the pacing and overall feel of the film is probably closer to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising and David Lowery’s The Green Knight, the latter of which I think is an excellent companion piece from 2021 (where Lowery’s film is about chivalry and ambition, this film is more about how revenge can blind you). If you like his previous films, then I think you’re really going to enjoy it. If you are fascinated by viking culture and history, then I think you’re going to absolutely love it. If you’re new to Eggers’ filmography, then it may be wise to think of this as some kind of blend of Conan the Barbarian and The Green Knight. To be more specific, this has the look and action of an epic $90 million revenge flick and the feel of an extremely ambitious A24 independent viking film. It’s a blend that I worry may strugglle to get audiences to flock to theaters, but if they do they will be treated to one incredible ride, as Eggers has made what may end up as one of the definitive viking films.
However, it’s not a love fest and Eggers’ approach is unrelenting in brutality. The vikings, and indeed the film’s main character, are not glorified. In a jaw-dropping sequence early in the film, which Eggers has had filmed in long deliberately paced shots with a lot of camera movement, we see a group of vikings attack and pillage a village in Eastern Europe. Skarsgård’s character is seen climbing over the protective wall using a small weapon and his own upper body strength before he and his fellow vikings go berserk like wild animals. They bite, they kill, and they go as far as to burn young ones instead of leaving them behind. Rather than a celebration of vikings, he has made a harsh, brutal, dirty, and blood-drenched picture that will hit people differently. Your jaw may drop in amazement, horror, or excitement depending on the scene, you may want to avert your eyes in horror, or perhaps the sheer savagery of it all will compel you to make open-mouthed noises. Sometimes Skarsgård would go so wild in scenes that I didn’t know what else to do other than shake my head and laugh in amazement. It’s a wlld film and it will have its fans.
So, it’s violent, bloody, and brutal, and Eggers depicts viking cruelty. But, on top of that, it’s also really weird. Sometimes it feels like an intense fever dream, and some of the visions that we see in the film are tough to really describe. I can even see them being described by some as psychedelic. There are rituals, incantations, mystical caves, dreamlike one-on-one combat, and even a scene where a father and son must prove who they are by burping and farting. At the other end of the spectrum, the film also has steamier scenes when people give themselves to each other in the woods. It’s a transportive film that makes you feel dirty, and one that makes you feel cold. Eggers succeeds in finding the right atmosphere thanks to a very appropriate brooding musical score, impressive cinematography, and dialogue that feels of a different time. It’s almost Shakespearean but only almost.
Willem Dafoe appears as the fool to the king played by a solid Ethan Hawke, and Dafoe’s performance really is perfectly tuned. The same can be said for Björk’s brief appearance. The Witch-star Anya Taylor Joy is also quite good as Olga, who Skarsgård’s Amleth sees eye-to-eye with. Early in the film, I worried about Nicole Kidman, though. I thought that she seemed a bit too static, but, later in the film, Kidman is quite powerful in a scene that reveals some of Eggers and co-writer Sjón’s intentions when it comes to what Amleth has been unable to see on his revenge quest. I was really happy about how much Claes Bang, the Danish actor who is best known for Ruben Östlund’s The Square and the BBC-Netflix series Dracula, figures into the second half of the film. Not only does he get to go toe-to-toe with the titular character, Bang has several scenes that allow him to prove exactly why he was perfect for the role. He, and his devilish good looks, makes for a great antagonist to Alexander Skarsgård’s Amleth. And let’s talk about Skarsgård. This is the role he was always born to play. He has beefed himself up to appear as bear-like as he can. It must’ve been so tough to shoot, as he is often topless or completely nude and covered in mud and fake blood. But the result makes it all worth it. It is undoubtedly his best performance on the big screen.
So, to me, what holds the movie back from a perfect score? Well, there are a few things. As a personal nit-pick, I would’ve liked the story of Prince Amleth of Jutland (the Danish peninsula) to be more explicitly Danish (and Norwegian and Swedish, for that matter). Instead, the focus is on a more Icelandic saga-interpretation of the story, which will be perfectly fine for most audiences, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit disappointed that those countries don’t figure into the film all that much. However, personal nit-picks aside, the actual minor problems that I have with the film is that the story feels fairly familiar (it rarely makes sharp changes from the familiar revenge storyline), and it also occurred to me that, when it comes down to it, it doesn’t really have all that much to say.
This is an unforgettable transportive revenge epic drenched in blood that you can’t take your eyes off and that wisely doesn’t glorify its characters. It’s so brutal and strange that it could even make you feel lightheaded. I love that it’s never afraid to be mystical and that it doesn’t lose itself in those fever dreams. It won’t be for everyone, but it absolutely is an amazing experience and an awesome picture, in part thanks to Skarsgård’s fully committed performance. I really do think that this is Robert Eggers’ best film.
9 out of 10
– Review Written by Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.