‘The Northman’ Review: A Staggering Feat Of Visceral Filmmaking

As floridly written and meticulously etched as they are, at their core the ornate period works of director Robert Eggers summon an elemental human conundrum: the constant clash between free will and the unexplainable in the construction of one’s fate. If there are forces beyond our control meddling in our mortal existences, must we surrender or can we fight back?

In 2015’s “The Witch,” a young woman gives in to the preternatural entities that haunt her in part to go against a religious microcosm that demands her submissiveness. In 2019’s “The Lighthouse,” two men in isolation confront their inner turmoil manifested as inexplicable phenomena. Always intriguingly vague in their dealings with the occult, these entries in his growing catalog of acclaimed features now feel like visually contained explorations.  

Exponentially larger in scope, and less cryptic in its themes, Eggers’ latest cinematic waltz with the uncanny, “The Northman,” plunges into blood-soaked mythology to induce a primal trance. Co-written with Icelandic poet Sjón (also co-writer of last year’s “Lamb”), this 10th century Viking saga sets itself apart from epics fleshed out around similar eras by maintaining Eggers’ aesthetic ambivalence, which plays with the grittily solemn and the darkly magical.

READ MORE: The Movies That Changed My Life: ‘The Witch’ Director Robert Eggers

Though as exhilaratingly violent as one of its most obvious filmic cousins with Nordic ties, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Valhalla Rising,” “The Northman” stays true to Eggers’ more offbeat sensibilities, contrasting gruesome imagery of brutally slaughtered bodies with the ethereal mysticism of a hero’s visions, whether of his past and future family tree, alarming premonitions, or ancient deities.

This tonal originality in a big-budget production that reinterprets ancient tales aligns the “The Northman” with recent titles such as Justin Kurzel’s under-loved but stunning “Macbeth,” and even David Lowery’s “The Green Knight.” All of these releases harness their imposing, historically inspired production design, large-scale set pieces, and star-studded casts to mold experiences that transcend what audiences have come to expect from grand spectacles.

A “child born of savagery,” prince Amleth (first played by young actor Oscar Novak) undergoes a scatological rite of passage into manhood in 895 AD Scandinavia. His father, King Aurvandil (a ferociously committed Ethan Hawke), a ruler obsessed with dying in battle to reach his god Ódinn with honor, and trusted servant Heimir (a kooky Willem Dafoe), conduct the communion of energies in one of the film’s most strangely intoxicating sequences.

In near darkness, with all participants sporting wild faces and uttering beastly sounds, this mind-altering ritual puts the sensorial power of the film medium in full display. But though the boy has now been inducted into the legacy of his kin, a classic royal betrayal warps his destiny: Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir (a stoic Claes Bang) murders Aurvandil to take over the kingdom.

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The premise of “The Northman” is a simple one. It tells of a fallen leader and the heir whose sole purpose for breathing is to avenge him, rescue the captured queen (an unnerving Nicole Kidman), and murder the traitor. This sacred to-do list becomes a mantra repeated by the long-haired brute Amleth (a character that directly inspired Shakespeare’s timeless tragedy “Hamlet”) becomes years later in hiding and embodied by muscular Swedish actor Alexander Skarsgård.

Eggers’ preferred cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who has lensed all three of his movies, lights “The Northman” in a deliberately rudimentary fashion for the sequences in the present, with the glow of flames against the darkness of the night being a recurrent theme—almost as if his frames were cave paintings of early men.

An early scene of Amleth among the Rus people that take him after he escapes Fjölnir, shows a group of warriors embracing their animalistic prowess around a campfire. That roaring scene speaks of a raw masculinity that can so easily turn into dangerous, unchecked machismo in a pack of like-minded individuals. Later, prisoners condemned to servitude find a moment of solace dancing and indulging near a blaze, a moment that reminisces of the “The Witch.” There’s also a heart-racing pivotal battle amid rivers of lava that plays out almost in silhouettes.

Besides the vastness of the wide shots that capture the grandeur of the terrain the story crosses—from mainland Scandinavia to Iceland—Blaschke’s cinematography is also noteworthy for its approach to instances of grace, coating them in either dazzling moonlight or the fantastical color palette of the northern lights for Amleth’s dreams of riding into the afterlife guided by Valkyrie.

Sonically, the chapters that comprise “The Northman” are marked by the loud pounding of drums constantly startling and preparing us for war. In general, the atmospheric music composed by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough carries ominousness, like a call to arms because the entire odyssey leads to a final confrontation of monumental proportions.

Almost anthropological in its unflinching depiction of barbarism in centuries past, “The Northman” follows Amleth from being part of the enslavement and murder of neighboring peoples by the Rus, events that exemplify how monstrous humans behave when seeking power, to willingly becoming a slave himself in order to get closer to vengeance. Eggers depicts the atrocities both bluntly, with beheadings and full-contact combat, and in an implied, yet shocking manner with acts that we don’t see in full but that we understand as abhorrent.

One look at current headlines of modern-day warfare affirms not much has changed over a thousand years later. Now the hard metal of axes and spears has mutated into high caliber ammunition and drone strikes. In one of these campaigns of merciless destruction, Amleth meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a captured woman that takes an interest in his unwavering determination as they struggle through forced labor. While he schemes to murder Fjölnir, she shows him tenderness foreign to him under the stars on the beautifully inhospitable volcanic terrain of Iceland.

With animalistic virulence, Skarsgård takes on a role at first burning with sheer adrenaline. A guttural scream in nature or the power of inflicting physical pain on others functions as outlets for the hatred that consumes him. There’s an unrestrained quality to the performance in the first half that turns into something more layered as Amleth must conceal his intentions towards his enemies and discovers another reason to keep going in Olga. A superb Skarsgård balances the bodily vigorousness required with the shattered innocence that defines his part.

A parentless child, robbed of family, Amleth is unable and ultimately unwilling, to overcome the trauma that has marred his life. The interesting psychological profile that Eggers and Sjón built for their wolfskin-clad protagonist hinges on his emotionally stunted childhood. A single tear frozen in time reminds him of the last time he was allowed to display weakness. Via its multiple narrative elements dealing with masculinity, “The Northman” proves it doesn’t glorify the viciousness but presents a man posed with the reality of what could be if he leaves it behind.

Fittingly, Icelandic music star Bjork appears in a short cameo as a shapeshifting seer wearing an imposing costume to remind Amleth of his mission. Her brief screen time solidifies the importance of the otherworldly aspects of the story. In turn, a quietly fierce Taylor-Joy channels her character in “The Witch” as Olga showcases abilities linked to pagan practices, even though her own relationship with the spiritual isn’t as well-drawn.  

Returning to one of her most effective modes, that of a cruel mother, Kidman sharpens her tongue for a poisonous speech. But as cruel as her piercing words may sound, what the queen expresses boils down to the notion that there’s more than honor to strive for, that defeat could mean a chance to focus on love, that the blinding desire for glory clouds Amleth’s ability to see another path. Such an accusation is proven right soon after. Victory sacrifices the possibility of a future, but in the end the avenger gets a sense of having fulfilled both desires. He strikes an equilibrium between the opposite poles pulling at him.

A staggering feat of visceral filmmaking, “The Northman,” like Eggers’ previous films, warrants profound analysis while still delivering a high-octane action odyssey. Some of the flourishes the director opted for, as well as the film’s overall demeanor (neither entirely self-serious nor fully whimsical), may receive mixed reactions. Still what Eggers has ambitiously crafted lands as an invigorating beacon for an industry in need of studio fare with substantial ideas and artistry. [A-]