Tale as old as time, song as old as the decayed drum-skins on which it’s all been written, Robert Eggers’ bloody brutal and beautiful The Northman casts all twenty-tall and five-wide feet of the Scandinavian god-man Alexander Skarsgård to play the Viking to end all Vikings in the Hamlet tale to end all Hamlet tales. Yes, they come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs flow, but most especially they are thirsty for the red sticky stuff of vengeance, sweet old-school skull-smashing throat-gurgling vengeance. And The Northman sails on a longship bellied upon a boiling sea of it. Visually gargantuan, thrumming with strange noise and even stranger visions, this is not even your grand-daddy’s grand-daddy’s Shakespeare—this is the bastard child of George Miller’s Mad Max Fury Road and Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, a surreal-tinged outer-space-operatic spectacle of every gray in the rainbow, speaking both morally and pigmentally. The Northman feels beamed in from another galaxy, in all the perfect sense.
And if I also tell you right up front that this is Robert Eggers’ third best movie out of his three-so-far movies (following his two previous masterpieces The Witch and The Lighthouse) then what of it? It’s still for long stretches unlike anything you’ve ever seen on a movie screen. What The Northman’s sort-of-straightforward script lacks in surprise, hitting as it does all of the same notes struck by ye Bard’s olde Danish Prince tale four hundred years thence—uncle kills brother, son hunts uncle, wash and repeat until everything’s bloody—Eggers’ monumental visual sense muddies up that familiarity with heavy metal depravity, with Bjork in big shell hats, with decapitated horses and nighttime skies so thick with stars that every character starts to resemble less a person than they do a walking talking constellation of lights.
Which is to say that you probably will not mistake Prince Amleth (Skarsgård), his battle-scarred father King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), his steel-eyed fire-haired mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), or his bastard uncle Claes Bang as “Fjölnir the Brotherless” (looking like Scar and speaking like Mustafa), for real people. To call them “larger than life” archetypes is to make a mole-hill of several mountains-the massive Icelandic scenery, halfway high to Valhalla itself, simply gets in the way of these folks’ machinations, and so they elbow the fjords and the roiling seas out of their way when they see fit to it. Everything in The Northman bellows-the ocean, the sky, the birds, the bosoms. The score, noodled out on ancient Nordic instruments by first-time soundtrack-makers Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, is a percussion-heavy hut-burner, subbing out Mad Max’s fire-blasting electric guitars with obscure Icelandic zithers while losing none of that same gut-quaking, skin-scorching fury.
In the 1950s this movie would have starred Steve Reeves and it would have been taken far less seriously, and (Harryhausen theatrics aside) all the worse for us that would have been — I truly love that now, unlike the ’50s when these efforts were seen as jokey and cheap, we live in a time and place where we can see and appreciate that serious artists devoted real craft and effort and immense skill into transporting us not just to another time, but toward another completely alien mindset altogether. People one thousand years ago weren’t working from the same reference points that we take for granted today, and a scholarly filmmaker like Robert Eggers is vital in actually getting that across — you can see it in all of The Northman’s references to Christianity as a vulgar aberration (those people worship a corpse nailed to a piece of wood!), and in its tangled intestine fortune-telling and ritualized blood sacrifice.
And Eggers’ devotion to the most minute period specificity isn’t just an O.C.D. tic; there’s method to his madness. When you spend time inside his movies that madness seeps into your eyes, your heart, your soul, as you find yourself lost amid foreign symbols and scribbled tongues. We aren’t watching a Valkyrie screech across the heavens for sheer sport and spectacle (although hell yeah it’s that too) — this was how Amleth and his kinfolk believed, how they saw the world. And The Northman goes full gangbusters in its efforts at cramming those ancient eyeballs into our scooped-out sockets, all the best to make us see their way if only for an instant of true movie-bliss Nirvana. Talk about a time-machine — Robert Eggers’ broad sword slices history in half and shoves our faces straight into its steaming belly.
So Amleth’s quest takes him from boyhood tragedy to foreign marauder-Eggers thankfully doesn’t romanticize the horrors the Vikings were responsible for, at one point actually summoning up a moment from Elem Klimov’s anti-war nightmare masterpiece Come and See of all things to cast an unforgiving eye on top of its single-take cinematic spectacle of blood and fury, as we watch the Vikings ravage a small village. There are several shots of the “how in the hell did he do that” variety that basically demand fist-to-table a return to the big-screen movie theater, if safe for you, in order to see them writ as large as they proffer, and marvel. Eggers’ camera-work, so smart and snake-like in its movements, was built for an epic story like this, giving us full view of everything, the broad expanse of the battlefield and the smallest deadliest wounds held in excruciating close-up.
As Amleth closes in on his father’s murderer and his shoulders spread by leaps and bounds he slips himself into slavery, into fox-cunning chaos-bringer, and into some romance too (Eggers’ fave Anya Taylor-Joy could have used a little more to do as “Olga of the Birch Forest” but she remains a special effect all on her own, and you will believe her when she summons the winds) — all while the volcano at the horizon grows redder, angrier, Earth’s greatest pimple ready to blow its lid. Everybody brings their A-game to this very B-story, bless them — Nicole Kidman and Claes Bang fare especially well in the film’s last act as the arterial sprays start painting their under-eyes and their declarations grow into ever-grander, nakeder screams. They wear madness wonderfully, and Skarsgard, bounds weirder than Steve Reeves would ever manage, cuts one memorable anti-hero figure through its middle. So no, The Northman might not represent the delicious scallywag rejection of mainstream storytelling that Eggers perfected with The Lighthouse. But it’s still speaking a language, one of brimstone and sulphur and cawing incandescent birds, that feels distant enough from our own that it sparks and sizzles with absolute ingenuity, with a richness most movies never come close to. The Northman, in another tongue, is pure fire.
Image sources (in order of posting): Focus Features,