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Describing “The Northman” as director Robert Eggers' most accessible film verges on misleading. The filmmaker's prior works—the puritanical hallucinations of “The Witch” and the desolate, mermaid fetishization of “The Lighthouse”—traded in traditional macabre American folklore for unconventional, ambient freak-outs. “The Northman” repeats the best instincts of those films, though to lesser effect. It demands audiences deconstruct overbearing patriarchal values, toxic masculine heroism, and the folly of revenge by pulling viewers through extreme devotion to familial honor. Eggers’ brand of psychological shock is bolder here than his prior works and potent in bursts, but barely works on boldness alone.
When Eggers first released “The Witch” his brand of horror was deemed, backhandedly, as “elevated.” The New England filmmaker delivered genre-breaking frights with a fresh devil-may-care glee for the sinister that pushed the sonic and visual possibilities of supernatural angst. With “The Northman,” Eggers uses slicker aesthetics and broader emotions, played out over a grander scale, with his familiar interests in the inherent weirdness that courses through ancient mythology. It’s the tale of Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a hulking, enraged Viking warrior prince who’s seeking retribution for a lost kingdom in Scandinavia. Modern audiences will know this legend by its well-known English adaptation, Hamlet, recalling unbreakable Amleth’s resolve, as unforgiving as the punishing landscape, to earn back his usurped crown.
This isn’t a prototypical hero’s journey replete with a dashing royal, however. Amleth occupies a different, harsher kill-or-be-killed era where no higher honor can befall a king than to die by the blade. His father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), recently returned from war, damaged and wounded, worships this reality by preparing his young son for the eventuality of bloodshed: a carnal ritual taking place in a smoky, otherworldly cavern that involves a mystical invocation to the ancestors led by Heimir the Fool (an unhinged Willem Dafoe), whereby Amleth and Aurvandill whoop and holler on all fours like wolves. In the world of “The Northman” we’re all just rabid animals occupying flabby sacks of human skin. The only obligations we have are primal: to avenge one’s father, and to defend one’s mother and kingdom. It’s an oath similarly taken by his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and ignored by his uncle, the imposing black-bearded Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who, of course, brings tragedy to young Amleth’s life by killing his father—forcing him to far-flung shores where he becomes a bitter, musclebound warrior.
Much of the film, lensed by Jarin Blaschke and edited by Louise Ford (Eggers' collaborators on “The Lighthouse” and “The Witch”), rests on a polished visual flair, exercising more camera movement than usual for the director. A vicious sequence involving Amleth and a band of skin-clad Vikings, covered in bear-pelt headdresses, edited with razor-sharp clarity by Ford, sees the pack methodically rampaging a village for kills. The elaborate tracking shot accompanying the scene feeds the camera’s delirious appetite for flesh with bodies bathed in blood, and the bone-chilling macho screams emanating from insatiable men. One shot, recalling Elem Klimov’s antiwar flick “Come and See,” finds a burning house filled with wailing villagers as a backdrop to Amleth’s unflinching gaze into the camera. Unlike Klimov’s film, this isn’t the image of a boy horrifically marked by war. This is a savage and defiant man fueled by conflict and gore.
"The Northman" is the kind of movie where even the mud has rage; it is a visceral film filled with codas to the inescapable darker regions of nature: animal, elemental and the harshest of all, human. They all vibrate through Eggers’ signature warped soundscapes and Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s brooding score, as ambient reverbs and decaying delays reach back toward primordial origins. The trippy hypnotic dreamscapes attempt a similar reach: the crack VFX team render Amleth’s family tree, an ever-evolving stand-in for divine rule, as a blue glowing arterial fern arising from his heart while connecting to ours. It’s one of the many magical tendrils intertwining, and sometimes knotting up, “The Northman,” a film where Björk portrays a blind seer pointing Amleth toward a sword with a dull-less blade and an unquenchable thirst for death.
David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” will probably serve as an all-too-easy comparison for many. But “The Northman” operates on a different emotional spectrum. This is a story of blind ambition stretched toward morally oblique ends in a world that prizes such malleability. That doesn’t mean these flawed characters don’t see themselves on the side of right. A virtuous anger fuels Amleth. And in a culture that’s weeded out male vulnerability, it’s down to Skarsgård to translate this man’s repressed emotions to a palpable rage. His romance with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, reuniting with Eggers), an enslaved potion maker equally searching for revenge against Fjölnir, isn’t filled with amorous sweet nothings. You show love, you make the erotic a reality, and allow your horny rage to take centerstage by killing. And Amleth does plenty of blade swinging. These are fully committed performances by Skarsgård, Taylor-Joy, and especially Kidman, in a period piece filled with outright absurdity and silly suggestive one-liners.
In that regard, “The Northman” often stumbles when it searches for profundity. As much as Eggers and his co-writer, the poet and novelist Sjón (“Lamb”), want to interrogate the place of women in these myths, that component bobs unmoored just below the surface. Outside of one spell, Olga remains within the confines of genre conventions without wholly subverting them. The last act is a slog, composed of a couple false endings hoping to attain a poetic plain. The final showdown between Fjölnir and Amleth, in the mouth of a volcano, in fact, is somehow anti-climactic. Certainly, the scene aims to explain the ways a hero’s journey, the expectation of fulfilling one’s destiny, no matter the consequences, carries a toxic burden, but the sentiment doesn’t translate in the overstated molten brouhaha.
Instead, this gory Viking tale works when considering its parts, but never really as a whole. The parts, however, are so thrilling, so uniquely calibrated to feverish, determined ends, that they elevate the entire film. Because how can one complain about the "too muchness" of the Valkyries? How can one scoff at the dizzying, unexplainable flights of magic? Where would the fun be in that? “The Northman” makes you happy it exists, even if you’re not totally happy with it.
In theaters exclusively on April 22.
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