Anyone who has seen The Witch or The Lighthouse knows that writer/director Robert Eggers is operating on a unique wavelength. His debut was a powerful tale of repression dressed in a folk-horror cloak. Audiences were mixed, likely due to its non-adherence to the beats of a mainstream horror flick (people in the audience at my inaugural viewing laughed at the film, those heathens). His follow up, which I would say was even better than his near-perfect debut, was less divisive, partially because audiences were more savvy to Eggers’ game, and partially because no one can resist a good on-screen fart, of which The Lighthouse has plenty. His latest film, The Northman, is easily his most accessible, but it would be a mistake to think that his junior outing would eschew the weirdness for which he has become known.
The Northman is weird as hell, in the best of ways, and if you can’t abide the weirdness, please rest assured that at least one hearty fart is emitted within the first few minutes — and is emitted in front of Willem Dafoe, as is appropriate.
This revenge tale borrows more than a little from Hamlet* (or, for the less Shakespearean among us, The Lion King). If the “king killed by brother, prince banished from the land, prince returns much later for revenge” plot wasn’t a dead giveaway, the lead character’s name, Amleth, sure as hell is.
After an adolescence spent living among a pack of warriors who enjoy acting like wolves and kicking the asses of anyone they come across, the now grown Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) gets word of a ruler who sounds a lot like his murderous uncle. This ruler is seeking new slaves, so Amleth leaves his pack and stows away amidst the new recruits in order to get closer to his target. Before this, Amleth definitely catches a spear with his bare hands and then throws it back at its original hurler, killing him. It’s far from the most badass thing he does by the end of the film, but that’s the level of badassery we’re dealing with here. I wish I brought a pillow to the theater so I could indulge my desire to emit a primal scream every five minutes or so. I do not envy the jerk who attacks someone fresh out of a screening of The Northman — said jerk is likely to be beaten half to death and skinned the rest of the way. If I wanted to fight someone after watching 300, I wanted to fight fifty someones after watching The Northman.
Don’t worry, I would never actually fight anyone. I am soft.
I will avenge you father.
I will save you mother.
I will kill you Fjolnir.
This is Amleth’s mantra, which he repeats as both a reminder of his mission, and to stoke the coals of his vengeful heart. For the record, Father is Ethan Hawke, Mother is Nicole Kidman, and Fjolnir is Claes Bang. All three do incredible work existing realistically in a truly bleak, terrifying world. Also along for the ride is the always compelling Anya Taylor-Joy, as Olga, a fellow slave and eventual love interest for Amleth.
A mix of supernatural and real-world plotting color Amleth’s journey, but this is no Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings level of fantasy. Everyone in this world bleeds red and dies hard if called upon to do so. No one can shoot energy beams, and dragons do not come into the mix. There are no wizards, just earthy psychedelics. There is a sword which can only be used at night, for reasons that can only be ascribed to magic, but this limitation isn’t employed in a magicky way. Really it exists just so that some of the action can occur at night (which cinematographer Jarin Blaschke captures beautifully), and to give it the incredibly badass name of Nightblade. There is very little subtlety here. Swords have names, blood sprays at per-gallon rates, and much of the dialogue is screamed at the top of a performer’s lungs, typically from behind 36-pack abs while wearing the hollowed out corpse of a wolf.
After the plot is set into motion and the stakes are set, we witness what is essentially a reverse slasher: an unstoppable killer dishing out gruesome and righteous violence under cover of night, leaving horrifying tableaus behind for survivors to find. But where this differs from a slasher is that the line between good and bad blurs as we learn more about Amleth and the history of his family. The introduction of gray areas into a revenge movie can sometime comes with a heavy dramatic price. The primal need to see comeuppance dished out at the end of a warhammer is exchanged for thematic depth. The trade off is considered worthwhile as much as not, but here it doesn’t feel like a trade at all. Eggers keeps everything at a steady boil, escalating it to a violent roil as needed. It’s breathlessly paced yet patiently considered. It’s thematically rich, but also a hell of a post-The Raid/John Wick action picture. It’s Hamlet and The Lion King, but ultimately it’s not. This adjacency exists only to be subverted, and also there is a nude sword fight on the lip of an active volcano.
The Northman is another killer entry in the filmography of a storyteller who cannot be contained, and who seems unable to make a movie that couldn’t be described as “wild.”
*I am fully aware that Hamlet is based on a classic story archetype, but I know little about it and really wanted to mention The Lion King, so you’ll just have to deal.
Directed by Robert Eggers
Written by Sjon, Robert Eggers
Starring Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy
Rated R, 136 minutes