The director of The Witch and The Lighthouse takes on a classic legend in a pretty metal way.
“I will avenge you father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” This is the righteous mantra that the hero of Robert Eggers’ latest film, The Northman, repeats to himself for years on end. The film is a classic tale of revenge and that’s classic in the literal sense; Eggers and co-writer Sjón based the story on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, a tale that’s been around since the 12th century.
Whether you know it in its original context or the Shakespearian take with Hamlet or the Disney version with The Lion King, the tale this time around retains its basic concept. A prince fated to be king has his family and birthright violently taken from him by his uncle. Years later the boy returns as a man to take back what is rightfully his. Simple as that.
Perhaps what’s most interesting about The Northman is how uncomplicated it keeps the proceedings – most everything plays out more or less how you’d expect. Eggers’ previous two films (The Witch, The Lighthouse) were psychological descents into terror and paranoia that often played with traditional structure and expectations, helping establish the kind of signature arthouse style that A24 has become famous for. Some of that flair and eerie imagery is still present in The Northman, but those hoping for a third round of Eggers’ distinct brand of horror will have to look elsewhere.
The film begins with the young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) happily living at home with his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and father King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke). This royal bliss is shattered when Aurvandill’s brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) suddenly acts to take over the kingdom, murdering the king and taking the queen as one of his prizes. Amleth manages to escape the bloody coup, fleeing his home by boat and swearing vengeance upon his uncle, no matter how long it may take.
The Northman seeks to portray the implacable violence and apathy of its setting and time period. Heads are chopped off, enemies are impaled, innocents are murdered or taken as slaves. As Amleth flees his kingdom, he’s not spared from having to bear witness to the massacre of his village, people he knew and loved. Such is the nature of hostile takeovers. Once the film jumps ahead, we see that these kinds of raids have become a line of work for the adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård). Raised by a savage gang of Vikings, Amleth now acts as a berserker, channeling his profound rage and hatred into action against any enemies that may stand in his way.
Skarsgård’s imposing height has been taken advantage of before onscreen, but it’s never appeared quite as hulking or intimidating as it does here. Amleth is a massive brute of a man, covered in taut muscles, scars and sweat. Much of The Northman explores the line between civilized humanity and our raw, more animalistic nature. Through brutal action sequences, fireside rituals and hallucinogenic visions and ceremonies set to a booming percussive score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, the film successfully hits a true primal feeling – a pounding in one’s chest that almost makes you want to hop on all fours yourself to howl along at the screen.
This goes hand in hand with the way Eggers’ film weaves its story of vengeance, showing the ways in which Amleth’s lifelong quest for blood morphs him into something that resembles beast far more than man. When his journey finally brings him back to Fjölnir’s doorstep, it also brings him a new challenge in the form of Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a slave who claims to be a valuable sorceress. Both she and Amleth work together to bring Fjölnir and his modest empire down from within but neither can fight the feelings that steadily grow between them.
The Northman’s tender moments are where it’s arguably at its most interesting. Amleth’s conflict over fulfilling his self-imposed destiny or seeking a life with Olga is the rare time where it feels like the film could veer into any direction. Certain narrative developments also further complicate the prince’s murderous conquest, forcing both him and the audience to contemplate the very nature of the mission and reevaluate the circumstances. The entire cast is brilliant but it’s Skarsgård who wows not merely for his physicality and intense rage but also for for surprisingly moving moments of vulnerability.
Eggers’ film ultimately rests on the ways in which we are bound to our fates or how we unwittingly bind ourselves to them. Amleth’s primal thirst for revenge is a self-destructive path, one that threatens to turn him into the very sort of barbarian that he swore to destroy when he was a boy. But The Northman also humors the idea that this savagery is part of what makes us human to begin with, or that we need to tap into that ferocious side of us to be what we need to be. The film is full of interesting moral implications and contradictions.
While the story takes a rather linear route with few surprises, Eggers and his team still deliver incredibly visceral sequences of Viking brutality, an impressively massive and beautiful production (longtime Eggers collaborator Craig Lathrop does production design once again), and an engaging take on an old legend. It’s easy to get lost in time during those two hours.
‘The Northman’ is now playing in theaters.