If you’re a fan of Robert Eggers‘ work, then “The Northman” should be right up your alley. It’s not quite as unique as his previous work, but it’s just Eggers enough to feel right at home in the realm of auteur director goes blockbuster category. It is what happens when you give an outlier a boatload of money to make any film they want. The end result is a strange, visually stunning (albeit messy) larger than life Viking revenge story with a Shakespearian influence and common “Hamlet” narrative as its framework.
Admittedly, it’s hard to know what to do with “The Northman.” It’s somehow unlike anything you’ve ever seen but also a story you’ve seen a thousand times. It is both brutal and tame, subtle and over the top, and somehow familiar yet unique. Guess that’s Eggers for you.
Directed by Robert Eggers (“The VVitch,” “The Lighthouse“) and written by both Eggers and Sjón (A24’s “Lamb“), “The Northman” stars Alexander Skarsgård (the hot one), Nichole Kidman, Anya Talyor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, and Willam Dafoe.
It tells the story of the young prince Amleth (Skarsgård) who witnesses the murder of his father, king Aurvandill (Hawke) at the hands of his uncle, and in his escape vows to return and avenge the treachery. Years later, he is a viking raider who discovers the whereabouts of his murderous uncle, and decides to disguise himself as a slave to infiltrate the land and exact his revenge. Along the way he meets Olga of the Birch Forest, a sorceress who’s goals temporarily align with his own. As he sets out to exact his revenge on his uncle Fjölnir, he will discover what it means to have a fate and destiny, and what the cost of revenge may actually be.
It’s probably best to accept up top that “Hamlet” is clearly the basis for this story. That’s not to say that Shakespeare the end all be all for poetic folklore. More so that by acknowledging the influence, it allows us to talk about “The Northman” as its own entity. The weeds are tall and vast if we start picking it apart and red threading the who’s who of a familiar story. So it’s best to just recognize that the influences narratively are undeniable and examine how well the film tells a common tale rather than trying to focus on how it’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Eggers is all over this, but it is far more visually driven than subversion, a departure from his previous work with which the whole of his filmography is often held to. It is clearly limited, as he is only known for two films previously, but it would be wrong to assume that his follow up to something as odd as “The Lighthouse” would continue the same offputting composition.
At some point, you need more than just cinephiles to watch your movies. That’s not to say that you need sell out and make something like, I don’t know, “Pompei,” but the box of making films for diehards only is just as limiting as boxing in blockbuster filmmakers as easy paycheck makers. The hard fact is, movies are hard to make no matter what. Big or small budgets can’t change the fact that any movie that actually makes to theaters is a masterful achievement, and holding Eggers to the A24 standard as the only ability he has stifles his creativity and keeps things like “The Northman” from thriving and his strange vision from reaching a wider range of people.
If you want Eggers to keep making “The Lighthouse,” you really need to let him experiment and go nuts with “The Northman,” and that’s how the film delivers overall.
“The Northman” is a lot of conflicting feelings. It ranges from “I’ve seen this story before” to “what the hell is happening” to “I’ve never seen anything like this” all in a single 2 hour movie. That’s a lot to balance, and I’m not entirely convinced that the film does all of this well. It does however do them well enough to be effective in each mindset, allowing for a broader audience to find different takeaways that can be enjoyed. It’s really hard to make a movie that is visually geared toward cinephiles and critics while also including enough ass and abs for even the most alpha of bros. “The Northman” is the first Eggers film where someone like me can leave the theater with introspective critiques of filmmaking prowess at the same time as a Monster loving Affliction shirt bro leaves exclaiming, “Brah, that was fucking sick bruh!” There are very few movies that can appeal to both, and that’s really where “The Northman” manages to thrive.
While the cinematography and visuals are absolutely stunning, “The Northman” is solidified by its cast, particularly Kidman and Taylor-Joy. They are clearly supporting characters in the larger story, but they both make it a point to steal every single scene they’re in. The men do fine, with Skarsgård more than just a pretty face with a sick bod. But it’s really the women who deliver the acting prowess. Taylor-Joy once again proves that she is the hottest rising star working today, and brings all the passion and intensity you’d expect from her at this point in her career. Likewise, Kidman goes for it- reminding everyone why she is one of the best actors out there. Both sell the strangeness in ways the rest can’t, and while no one is a slouch in “The Northman,” it’s the women that really drive it all home.
Eggers goes out of his way to visually communicate how absolutely batshit crazy that time period was. He’s willing to demonstrate everything in exquisite detail, from the bedding to cooking utensils to the odd traditions and strange religious rituals. “The Northman” has a lot of naked dudes, taking what we now know as drug, and believing they’re literally bears and wolves- anointed beasts ready for battle. The attention to detail cannot be overstated, and it Eggers creates a truly stunning fantasy marvel that feels both out of this world and grounded for the era with which the story takes place. I couldn’t help but liken the visuals to “The Green Knight,” another poetic interpretation set on using visual mastery to tell fantastical stories.
“The Northman” is a bit messy, and not just in the way you’d expect from the brutal blood and guts that splash across the screen. It is perhaps the most ambitious Eggers has ever been, and while it doesn’t crack under the weight of it, it definitely comes close. It feels more like a tapestry of masterful visual storytelling than a complete narrative. It’s not really that complex, but it isn’t basic or perfunctory either. It is tale as old as time told through an unencumbered visionary, and while that may open the doors for more people to enjoy different works, it most certainly runs the risk of shutting individual doors of those going in with particular expectations.
In the end, this is most certainly a film worth watching. It has enough abs for anyone hoping for that Greek god physique, enough ass shots to make Sir Mix-a-Lot happy, enough high level performances and visuals to appease the most critical of critics, and enough brutality to feed the cravings of the Rockstar coursing through the bro veins. There’s a little something for everyone, but not enough of any one thing to be for any particular group of movie goers. This is important, because it MUST be separated from the Marvel machine which is literally a movie franchise for everyone all the time.
“The Northman” is one helluva ride, and is one of the more visually intriguing outings of the year even if its competing themes get lost in the weeds of who the film is actually for. It doesn’t really make sense but I’d say this film is for everyone and no one. Whatever that means for you, you’re right.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to take some edibles, and have a blind witch guide me to a magical sword with a thirst for the blood of my enemies.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Stars
“The Northman” is currently playing in theaters. Watch the trailer below.