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The Northman

Robert Eggers is still best known as a pioneer who helped birth the recent trend of low-budget/high-concept psychological “prestige horror” films that keep the lights on at A24. (Of course, there’s an argument to be made that Jennifer Kent is the true mother of the movement by way of The Babadook, but that’s for another time.) Eggers’ previous efforts were The Witch and The Lighthouse, both of which were so utterly spellbinding that they remain the subject of blazing artistic debate to this day. My own personal interpretation is that they’re best viewed as companion films, as both are centered around decently sympathetic yet deeply flawed individuals forced into isolation and completely unmade when confronted with a higher power. With The Witch, that higher power was literally Satan; with The Lighthouse, the higher power was metaphorically God.

So here’s The Northman, in which Eggers dips his toe into Norse mythology, with the implication that he would take the old Viking gods and customs every bit as seriously and literally as he did the Salem Witch Trials. What’s more, while each of Eggers’ previous efforts put a sparse cast in an isolated setting, this one features an impressively star-studded cast on a decades-long quest spanning Northern Europe. And lest we forget, this psychological horror filmmaker is turning his penchant for merciless brutality toward a revenge film.

Whatever we’re getting with this one, you already know for damn sure it won’t be boring. So let’s see what we’ve got.

This is the story of Amleth, played as a boy in the first act by Oscar Novak (who previously made his blink-and-you’ll miss it debut as young Bruce Wayne in The Batman) and played as an adult in the rest of the film by Alexander Skarsgaard. The film kicks off when Amleth’s royal father (King Aurvandill, played by Ethan Hawke) is murdered by his brother (Fjolnir, played by Claes Bang), and Amleth swears vengeance on his usurping uncle.

A few decades later, Amleth is now in a band of vikings that go about raiding, pillaging, raping, enslaving, and so on. After one particular raid, he finds out that Fjolnir was such an incompetent monarch that his kingdom in Norway was conquered, thus Fjolnir fled with his sister-in-law-turned-wife (Gudrun, played by Nicole Kidman) to try his hand at sheep farming in Iceland. With this information, Amleth disguises himself as a slave headed for Fjolnir’s farm.

Enter Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a young witch recently enslaved by Amleth and his crew for delivery to Fjolnir. Olga’s smart enough to see through Amleth’s disguise, and she’s sympathetic enough to Amleth’s plight to assist in his revenge plot in return for her own freedom. Or maybe she’s only playing him to suit her own mysterious ends, it’s hard to tell at first.

But of course a revenge plot can’t be so simple. The fates (by way of a blind prophetess played by Bjork in a speaking cameo role) have decreed that Amleth must retrieve Draugr, a magic sword that craves human blood. What’s more, the sword is enchanted in such a way that it cannot be drawn unless the fates will it. While this means Amleth can’t get his vengeance straight away, it does mean that he spends most of the film burning and slaughtering his way through Fjolnir’s farm, setting the both of them up for a bloody confrontation when each of them is at their lowest point.

At this point, it’s perhaps worth mentioning that the film was loosely based on an Old Icelandic poem. As you might’ve guessed already, that same poem also served as a direct inspiration for one William Shakespeare. But while Hamlet makes for the easiest comparison, I could point to certain pieces of Macbeth as well. In point of fact, Shakespeare wrote a great many tragic plays about royalty and betrayal, and this story bears at least a passing resemblance to quite a few of them.

The crucial thing that this film and Shakespeare have in common is that they both speak in a language of legends. This story operates under the same kind of logic you might find in ancient Greco-Roman myths or the Arthurian saga. Indeed, the film’s epic scope, dreamlike tone, and deathly serious presentation of fantastical concepts bears a striking resemblance to last year’s The Green Knight… with an extra shot of testosterone.

It’s perfectly obvious that this film was crafted by the same director who gave us The Witch, because the pagan imagery comes hot and heavy throughout the whole film. The movie is loaded with portrayals of fertility rituals, rites of passage, and funeral ceremonies, all of which are based in nature and many of which heavily feature blood and/or nudity. In point of fact, this religious focus on nature is a cornerstone of the film, as the beastly nature of man and the difference between humans and animals are prominent themes throughout.

That said, the morality here does get a bit muddled. On the one hand, the film absolutely does not shy away from portraying the vikings as full-tilt, “crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women” barbarians who rape and enslave anyone they don’t outright kill. Hell, the film even goes so far as to float the possibility that maybe Aurvandill deserved to die because he’s clearly such a barbarian and raising his son to be so.

On the other hand, that’s quickly hand-waved away on the grounds that killing one’s brother to take his wife and power is inherently wrong, so Fjolnir has to die. There’s also the fact that while Fjolnir may not be a full-blown viking like his brother, he’s still a slaveowner who rapes his slaves on the side. There’s also the matter of Olga, who’s strangely quick to forgive Amleth for his part in her own imprisonment and the wholesale slaughter of her entire village, all for the sake of killing Fjolnir and ensuring her own freedom.

Yes, there’s a bit of leeway in the acknowledgment that this is a time and place in which women and prisoners of war were customarily treated as property. Also, because our protagonist is so ruthlessly single-minded on revenge to the exclusion of all else, the film likewise keeps its focus on killing the bad guy so we’re (hopefully) too distracted to think very much about the raping and enslaving and whatnot.

Perhaps most importantly, the film never lets Amleth completely off the hook for his own crimes, nor is he ever treated as a clear-cut hero. Even with the gift of the magic sword, it’s floated as a distinct possibility that the sword may be evil, and there are so many open questions as to what the fates’ ultimate goal is, whether the gods know what they’re doing, or even if fate is set in stone. And lest we forget, this is a revenge drama. By necessity, that means our protagonist has to be faced with a serious moral conflict as to whether he should dedicate his entire life to becoming a monster at least as bad as the one he’s trying to kill, or settle for a life well-lived as the best revenge.

I can understand if some modern moviegoers are repulsed by the morality of all this going on, but I’d argue that the ninth-century context and the compounding moral complexities of the revenge thriller genre are enough to give the film a pass.

An unexpected benefit of such primitive characters is that it makes the romance angle so much simpler. Amleth and Olga don’t really need any kind of complicated interplay or emotional satisfaction — Amleth is tough, Olga’s crafty, they’re both hot, so they fuck. That’s it. On that base and purely physical level, the chemistry they’ve got is more than enough.

That said, I’d hate to sell either one of these actors short. After Skarsgaard’s sadly ill-fated turn as Tarzan, there could be little doubt that there’s no one else in all the world who could be equally plausible as a bona fide blue-blooded king and a feral beast who could literally snatch a spear out of the air in mid-flight and throw it back for a fatal blow. Likewise, Taylor-Joy is uniquely suited for her role because she looks like a porcelain doll yet she stands up to pressure like she’s forged in adamantium.

Elsewhere in the supporting cast, we’ve got Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, and Willem Dafoe. I’m sad to report that none of them get much in the way of screen time — hell, Dafoe and Hawke don’t even show up outside of the first act! Still, they all make a meal out of what they’re given and their performances are instantly memorable.

The MVP of the supporting cast is unquestionably Claes Bang, who elegantly portrays the character’s tragic downfall without ever letting us forget that Fjolnir is a straightforward bad guy. Compare that to Gustav Lindh, who goes full steam ahead in portraying Fjolnir’s firstborn son as a hate sink. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Eldar Skar, here playing the resident cowardly toady, though the character is far more notable for his missing nose. Seriously, that’s some impressive prosthetic/VFX work.

Speaking of missing appendages, the action is suitably gory. I was particularly fond of an action scene at the end of the first act, in which Amleth and his viking brethren ransack a village in one long, breathless take. Yes, I’m sure there were a number of hidden cuts in there, but experiencing the bloody and merciless siege through one extended and unflinching take was a gut-churning experience. Conversely, we’ve got the scene in which Amleth ambushes a couple of Fjolnir’s men, the homicide happens in total darkness, and nothing is shown until the next day, when we see the victims arranged in a grotesque display. The filmmakers know whether it’s scarier to show something or not show something, is what I’m trying to say.

What about the nudity? Well, we’ve got quite a few scenes of men jumping around in loincloths and howling like animals. Frontal female nudity is extremely brief and obscured. Plenty of butt shots from both sexes.

Overall, The Northman is exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a straightforward revenge plot in which the protagonist and the villain are both clear-cut, the story is simple, the themes are clear, and the film takes place in a time and culture where subtlety hasn’t been invented yet. It certainly helps that we’ve got a marvelous cast going full-throttle, the fight scenes are suitably gruesome, and the imagery is utterly spellbinding. Moreover, it’s constructed with such fidelity to the legends of old that even if the morality feels somewhat dated, the whole movie feels timeless.

This is absolutely a film worth seeing.

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