Robert Eggers. If you don’t know the name, familiarize yourself with it because you’re missing out. He is legit. An A24 prodigy, Eggers is a living argument against the notion that Hollywood is running out of ideas. His first three films (The Witch, The Lighthouse, and The Northman) are all departures from conventions of their respective genres, meticulous in their historic detail, and…kind of weird. I recently watched The Witch and was impressed by the film’s unsettling atmosphere. The Lighthouse, which I saw in theaters in 2019, is a film I still occasionally think back on; it is an ambiguous, raucous, black-and-white Lovecraftian horror about a pair of lighthouse keepers who go mad (in short, a film bro’s wet dream). However, The Northman might be my favorite of Eggers’ films yet.
The jump from an independent to Hollywood-sized budget can be a daunting transition. Filmmakers are given freedom like never before – for better or worse. While they can realize their imagination without limitation, the absence of creative constraint can lead directors to lose their identity in the film or lose sight of quality storytelling in favor of special effects. A recent example is Chloe Zhao’s Eternals, a bloated Marvel movie that turned its superheroes into myths. The movie is a commendable effort to diverge from the MCU formula, but unfortunately is too sprawling to emotionally resonate the way Zhao’s previous projects did; her signature use of real people in place of actors and guerilla filmmaking are what helped Zhao win an Academy Award for Nomadland.
Massive budgets also means a lot more pressure to make a decent return at the box office and can lead to studio interference with the director’s vision, just ask Zack Snyder. The Northman was made for somewhere between $70-90 million, compared to the $4 million budget of The Witch or the $11 million budget of The Lighthouse. It was a ballsy move by Focus Features to take such a large swing with an up-and-coming auteur known for arthouse horror movies. The fact The Northman exists in a period of preexisting IPs dominating the box office is worth celebrating and the results are there: The Northman looks and feels like a $90 million Viking movie. It is the most visually spectacular and insane film I’ve seen this year. While the version of The Northman audiences will get to see isn’t Eggers’ “original cut,” it is the “most entertaining” one as cited by him.
The film is based on the Scandinavian legend of Prince Amleth, the direct inspiration of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The Northman follows Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) from childhood to adulthood on his bloody path for revenge against his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang), who killed Amleth’s father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). The story blends qualities from Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Macbeth, from the trope of the uncle killing the father and bedding his wife, to witches foretelling the future and the woman manipulating the man into action. Not only is the film’s narrative familiar, but the clear beginning, middle, and end act structure makes The Northman Eggers’ most accessible film. But to say it is his most accessible film is not to say the film is entirely accessible. You can tell the man who made The Witch and The Lighthouse is still behind the wheel and calling the shots.
Early in the film, Ethan Hawke as Aurvandil takes a young Amleth to see Heimir (a fun but brief cameo by Willem Dafoe), a spiritual jester, who conducts an initiation ceremony where the father and son bark like dogs, belch, and fart to prove their manhood. The film concludes in astonishing fashion atop an erupting volcano, where grownup Amleth, more shredded than cheddar cheese, sword fights his uncle Fjolnir, naked (real swords people, get your minds out of the gutter). The Northman isn’t for the faint of heart; the movie is a testosterone-fueled epic. And I haven’t even spoken to the violence in the film, as where would a good Viking movie be without it? There are plenty of blood-splattered moments, mutilations, and a quasi-crucifixion, but one sequence stood out to me the most: a nearly one-take berserker raid on a village that begins with Amleth catching a spear mid-air and launching it back at its thrower whereupon chaos ensues. The scene’s cinematography is as impressive as its unflinching action and totally immerses the viewer. My eyes were glued to the screen.
The Northman, like Eggers’ previous films, is almost meticulous in its historical accuracy. Eggers, who consulted experts on Norse mythology and Scandinavian history, has said everything in his film is authentic to how it was (as far as we know, considering the era was well over 1000 years ago): from the runes character’s wear around their necks and the material of the headbands they wear, to the spacing of the village huts and use of psychedelics. The only thing not accurate? The haircuts. Apparently, Alexander Skarsgard looked silly with a bowl cut. The Northman also features title cards written in Norse language (paired with an English translation). Some are heralding the film as the most accurate Viking movie of all time – another way The Northman immerses its viewers into the setting of its characters.
While The Northman is a hypermasculine story, the film is not without a feminine touch. If anything, the female characters are more complex than the males who have a rigid live-and-die by the sword attitude. Nicole Kidman is Queen Gudrun and Amleth’s mother. Amleth dedicates himself to finding and saving her from his uncle, but when he finally reaches her, it turns out not everything is as it seems. Kidman delivers a more malicious turn than expected. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga, an Icelandic slave and romantic interest of Amleth, holds her own against the towering men with her “cunning,” a classic battle of brain vs. brawn. She also appears to have a unique connection to nature and earth and is able to use that to help Amleth wreak havoc on his uncle’s farm. The Northman critiques the destructive behavior and brutality of the film’s male characters by contrasting it with the thoughtfulness of its female characters.
The Northman is a graphic Viking revenge saga that is cinematically excellent. The film enhances a familiar plot with Norse mythology and period setting accuracy. Eggers does not cave in on his unique style for the sake of making a mainstream blockbuster – while this has doomed The Northman to becoming a box office flop, it will be more memorable than other higher grossing films.