In The Witch and The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers meticulously built worlds based on old folklore and mythology to examine themes of isolation, masculinity, and societal expectation. These wildly imaginative interpretations on genre attracted attention from critics and audiences alike, leading to great anticipation for the director’s next project. However, as Eggers’ first foray into action blockbuster filmmaking, The Northman has led to a few reservations over yet another small indie director running into a tough post-production process for a blockbuster project. Although it occasionally gets bogged down in the plot elements of its bloody tale of revenge, the result mostly allays these fears by creating a brutal and mystical world filled with Viking rituals, witches, and prophecies.
Co-writers Eggers and Sjón’s story may be a familiar one. It takes inspiration from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which itself is based on Saxo Grammaticus’ Vita Amlethi, a Danish legend that follows a Norseman’s quest for revenge. In the film, a young prince named Amleth (Oscar Novak) witnesses his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murder his beloved father King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) and claim the kingdom along with his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Due to Viking duty, Amleth makes his sole purpose to avenge his father, rescue his mother, and murder his uncle, repeating his mission as a mantra and promise to the gods. Now a man, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is a berserker who raids and pillages lands for different kings and noblemen. He receives a prophecy from the Seeress (Björk) that sets him on his journey for vengeance.
The savage nature of The Northman is a welcome departure from the softened violence of many modern blockbusters. The film exists in a world where decapitation and dismemberment are a way of life and living honorably means dying on the battlefield. Amleth and Aurvandill take part in an initiation ritual where they crawl on all fours and howl like wolves while the berserkers dance into a trance-like state and summon the spirit of bears before combat. The visual style is so potent that one can almost smell the muddy bodies reek of dry sweat and blood while the bone-chilling battle cries and score from composers Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough add to an experience that swings between overwhelming intensity and haunting beauty. Intricate tracking shots capture the berserkers’ rage in a village raid scene and follow Amleth as he sneaks through Fjölnir’s farmstead with murderous intent. All of this culminates into a detailed and lived-in depiction of the brutality of Viking life.
While Eggers’ precise vision is commendable, Amleth’s actual journey is rather straightforward. In his previous two films, Eggers excelled when he mostly excised plot elements in favor of nailing the fine details of the language and design of the setting. As a revenge tale, The Northman is somewhat restricted to following a set storyline, occasionally making it feel the need to explain even the more cryptic events happening onscreen. The formulaic plotting is made more apparent as Amleth is occasionally a tough character to root for. This is partly due to the near impossible task that Skarsgård has in showing the soul behind Amleth’s rage and the atrocities he commits.
However, the film’s strength is found in highlighting the tragedy in Amleth’s devotion to taking vengeance for only a fading memory of his deceased father. As an orphaned child, he is both unable and resistant to overcoming his trauma, with his upbringing only allowing him a single tear to grieve the death of his father. Through its themes of masculinity, The Northman avoids glorifying its violence by instead depicting a man who has it as his only tool to process his pent-up emotions.
Much of the soul of the film comes from Amleth’s lover Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who gives Amleth someone to lose as he continues on with his death-defying quest. While he plans to murder Fjölnir, she shows him a tenderness that is in sharp contrast to the unfeeling Viking life. Sadly, the film is too reliant on her to provide Amleth with more tangible feelings, and it relegates her to a character only defined by her relationship to the fallen prince. Queen Gudrún fares better as her scathing speech challenges Amleth’s ideas of honor and glory, complicating his desire for vengeance with a pursuit toward an actual future.
Overall, The Northman is impressive in its visceral filmmaking. It encourages analysis while simultaneously delivering an entertaining action epic. While there are a few setbacks in its rudimentary plot, Eggers has crafted a studio film with equal amounts of fun, artistry, and thematic substance. It is a shining example of what blockbuster films can be and hopefully is a sign for studios to take more risks in the future.
The Northman opens in theaters on April 22. Watch the full trailer here.