At almost the exact same time, the film world was seemingly overtaken by two young writer/directors; Ari Aster and Robert Eggers. Both directors delivered their unique visions by way of the famed distributor, A24. Now the latter with a 90 million dollar budget through new partner Focus Features has returned with what promises to be a brutal, unrelenting, Viking revenge film. But does the final product deliver on the madness that it’s believed to entail?
King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) has been away from his people and his family for years. Entangled in the conquests of war, he has finally returned, victorious. Greeted by his wife Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and son Prince Amleth (played as an adult by Alexander Skarsgård), Aurvandill is pleased to be home, but he has news. He’s has been injured, and while his time on the earth may last for some time, he needs to take his son through the rituals, putting him on the path to rule after his father has passed. Emerging from their ceremony, Aurvandill is attacked and murdered by his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Witnessing this atrocity, Amleth escapes and swears his life toward getting revenge on his uncle and avenging his father’s murder.
It almost feels strange to say, since there are only two other Robert Egger’s films to compare The Northman to; but it’s safe to safe that this is Egger’s most straight forward and easily accessible film. The story has a more traditionally recognizable structure, and the more esoteric aspects of the film fit perfectly into Viking lore. It’s hard to tell if the more straight forward nature of the story telling is a product of his writing partner for this film–Icelandic poet, novelist, and screenwriter Sjón–or just a decision Eggers made to tell this tale. Either way, those who even enjoyed The VVitch and The Lighthouse while maybe not understanding them completely will find themselves led more easily through this experience compared to the others.
This is not to say that The Northman is bereft of Egger’s signature style and vision. There is a cinematic language that can often be left out of other films that focus on the brutality of revenge. Watching Amleth and the group of pillagers he joins after escaping his Uncle and they climb over the outer walls of a village they are attacking is just a breathtaking and choreographed as a large scale musical dance number. There is no actual correlation between these two acts, but when you pull apart the art of film making, you can see where Egger’s eye is more attune to a visual language that other film makers lack.
Egger’s has also shown in his pervious films that he tries his best to be true to the times he is portraying. He studies the past to bring a realistic depiction of what life would be like in the eras he is portraying. Even though The Northman is about a relentless warrior on a path of blood and vengeance where who seemingly is stronger than others and unstoppable in ways, Amleth is not portrayed as a superhero. He lumbers across fields that he is trying to run full speed through. He is bound to the limits of his surroundings, both physical and metaphysical. He is a force to be reckoned with, but isn’t bound to an aura of godlike personification.
Due to it’s traditional straight line delivery though, The Northman is more about its presentation compared to its story’s goal. There were a few points where if the film just ended a bit earlier or just changed one minor line of dialogue where it could have been a revolutionary change to the revenge driven action/drama. But in the end, it took the paved road instead of tearing up its own path. Though the choices I would have preferred it take would have been extremally divisive amongst audiences; they would have been brave and revolutionary if made.
Some viewers might be upset with the limited time that some of their favorite actors/performers appear on screen. If you’re expecting long and thrilling scenes featuring Bjork or Willem Dafoe, prepare yourself for disappointment. It’s not like they waste the time they do have, and it’s not trying to say that Alexander Skarsgård is not triumphant in his brooding turn as a blood thirsty warrior. But a movie so heavily promoted on it’s cast does a lot to hide them. But Claes Bang as Fjölnir is perfect not just in his performance, but as a character who traditionally very one sided. There is depth and dimension to what is sold as the villain of The Northman that most films wouldn’t dare explore.
At the end of the day, The Northman is not the rampaging gore fest I have seen some people try to claim it is. Yes, the actions of these characters are brutal. Yes, there are some scenes with bloody despair and entrails depicted, but they are few and far between. This is more nuanced, deliberately tense look at a path of destruction. It shines bright in its heights, and keeps the light glowing in its more well known parts.
Final Grade: B
More review by Matthew Schuchman