The Northman 2022 Review
Asserting that “The Northman” is Robert Eggers’ most accessible film is almost deceptive. Prior works of the director, such as “The Witch’s” puritanical hallucinations and “The Lighthouse’s” desolate mermaid fetishization, eschewed traditional macabre American folklore for unconventional, ambient freakouts. “The Northman” replicates the best qualities of these films, albeit to a lesser degree. It demands that the audience deconstructs oppressive patriarchal values, toxic masculine heroism, and the folly of vengeance by dragging them through an extreme devotion to familial honor. Eggers’ brand of psychological shock is bolder and more potent in this work than in his previous works, but boldness alone is insufficient.
When Eggers released “The Witch” for the first time, his brand of horror was obliquely deemed “elevated.” The director from New England pushed the sonic and visual boundaries of supernatural angst with his genre-defying, devil-may-care approach to the macabre. With “The Northman,” Eggers employs slicker aesthetics and broader emotions, played out on a grander scale while maintaining his familiar interest in the inherent strangeness of ancient mythology. It is the story of Amleth (Alexander Skarsgrd), a massive, enraged Viking warrior prince seeking vengeance for a lost Scandinavian kingdom. Modern audiences will recognize this legend from its well-known English adaptation, Hamlet, which recalls Amleth’s determination to reclaim his stolen throne, which was as unyielding as the harsh terrain.
This is not, however, a classic hero’s journey complete with a dashing prince. Amleth resides in a different, more brutal era where the highest honor a king can achieve is to die by the sword. His father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), recently returned from war, damaged and wounded, worships this reality by preparing his young son for the eventuality of bloodshed: a carnal ritual taking place in a smoky, otherworldly cavern that involves a mystical invocation to the ancestors led by Heimir the Fool (an unhinged Willem Dafoe), during which Amleth and Aurvandill howl and In “The Northman’s” universe, we are all rabid animals inhabiting flabby sacks of human skin. Our only responsibilities are primordial: to avenge one’s father and defend one’s mother and kingdom. It is an oath also taken by his mother, Queen Gudrn (Nicole Kidman), and disregarded by his uncle, the imposing black-bearded Fjolnir (Claes Bang). The latter brings tragedy to young Amleth’s life by murdering his father, forcing him to far-flung shores where he becomes a bitter, muscled warrior.
About This Film
The majority of the film, shot by Jarin Blaschke and edited by Louise Ford (Eggers’ collaborators on “The Lighthouse” and “The Witch”), relies on a polished visual style, with the director employing more camera movement than usual. A brutal scene involving Amleth and a band of skin-clad Vikings wearing bear-pelt headdresses, edited with razor-sharp precision by Ford, depicts the pack methodically slaughtering villagers. The elaborate tracking shot accompanying the scene satisfies the camera’s delirious appetite for flesh with blood-drenched bodies and the bone-chilling screams of greedy men. In one shot reminiscent of Elem Klimov’s anti-war film “Come and See,” a burning house filled with wailing villagers serves as the backdrop for Amleth’s unwavering gaze into the camera. In contrast to Klimov’s film, this image does not depict a boy scarred by war. This savage and defiant man is fueled by violence and conflict.
“The Northman” is a visceral film filled with codas to the unavoidable darker regions of nature: animal, elemental, and most ferociously human. All of them vibrate through Eggers’ signature warped soundscapes and Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s ominous score, with ambient reverbs and decaying delays reaching back to the universe’s origins. The psychedelic hypnotic dreamscapes aim for a similar effect: the top-notch VFX team renders Amleth’s family tree, an ever-evolving stand-in for the divine rule, as a blue, glowing arterial fern emanating from his heart and connecting to ours. It is one of the many magical tendrils intertwining and sometimes knotting up “The Northman,” a film in which Bjork portrays a blind seer directing Amleth to a sword with a dullless blade and an insatiable thirst for death.
“The Green Knight” by David Lowery will likely be an overly simplistic comparison for many. But this movie operates on a different emotional spectrum. This is a tale of blind ambition pursuing morally ambiguous ends in a society that values such malleability. This does not imply that these flawed characters are not on the side of the right. A righteous fury fuels Amleth. And in a culture that has eradicated male vulnerability, it is Skarsgrd’s responsibility to translate this man’s repressed emotions into a palpable rage. His relationship with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, reuniting with Eggers), an enslaved potion-maker also seeking vengeance against Fjolnir, is not characterized by romantic sugarplums. You demonstrate affection, bring the erotica to life, and allow your lustful rage to take center stage by killing. And Amleth swings his blades frequently. Skarsgrd, Taylor-Joy, and especially Kidman give fully committed performances in a period piece filled with outright absurdity and silly suggestive one-liners.
In this regard, “The Northman” stumbles frequently when attempting profundity. With the exception of one spell, Olga adheres to genre conventions without completely subverting them. The final act is a slog, comprised of several failed attempts to achieve a poetic plain. In fact, the final confrontation between Fjolnir and Amleth at the mouth of a volcano is somewhat anticlimactic. Certainly, the scene intends to illustrate how a hero’s journey, the expectation of fulfilling one’s destiny regardless of the consequences, carries a toxic burden, but the sentiment is not conveyed in the overwrought molten commotion.
Instead, this gruesome Viking story is effective in parts, but never as a whole. However, the parts are so thrilling, so uniquely calibrated to feverish, determined ends, that they elevate the entire film. Because how can one complain that the Valkyries are “too much”? How can one mock the inexplicable, dizzying flights of magic? What would be the amusement in that? “The Northman” makes you happy that it exists, even if you’re not completely content with its existence.
Movie: The Northman
Genres: Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, History, Thriller
Run Time: 2h 17min
Released date: 22th April 2022