Robert Eggers is probably my favorite filmmaker working today. With only three movies under his belt, he’s already established himself as a noteworthy talent and possessed of a distinct voice. What’s more that voice is saying things are, to me specifically, super interesting. All three of his films, The Witch (sometimes stylized as The VVitch), The Lighthouse and now The Northman are period pieces wherein the period in question is recreated with precise and exacting detail. That said, Eggers isn’t a Julian Fellowes, simply content to recreate history, he’s a revisionist with a distinct interest in deconstructing what we look for in our history. His first two movies, The Witch and The Lighthouse were, to one degree or another critical appraisals of their settings and characters. Which brings us to The Northman, a movie that’s bigger in budget, and scope than either of Eggers’s first two movies. It’s also been positioned as his first potentially mainstream hit. So how did it turn out? Well join me as we ride into battle in the name of Odin and Valhalla as we discuss The Northman.
The Northman is by far, Eggers’s most straightforward movie. It’s an adaptation of the saga of prince Amleth, in that its the story of a prince who sees his father killed by his uncle who also kidnaps his mother. He escapes from his home, becomes The Best Viking and returns to exact his revenge on the murderous uncle. If that sounds vaguely familiar, the same story would go on to inspire Shakespeare to write Hamlet. In a lot of ways, The Northman is a really good movie based on the simple premise of a revenge story. The movie’s real success, in this arena lies in the details. All of the cinematography is breathtaking, the costumes are immaculate and the musical score is suitably epic. All of the actors do really well with their material. I think Alexander Skarsgård is one of those actors that we just sort of forget about sometimes. It’s surprisingly easy to forget that Hollywood just has access to a 6′ 4″ Swede who’s built like a literal Viking and with legitimate acting chops. He plays the Best Viking version of Amleth as a hulking mass of barely contained violence motivated only by revenge and sheer forward momentum. He snarls his way through scenes (sometimes literally), hunched over like a shaved bear or a wolf in in the shape of a man right up until we see a glimpse of the scared boy that’s been dormant since his father’s death. Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe and singer Björk are both having one hell of a time as a pair of shaman who absolutely steal the scenes they’re in. Anya Taylor-Joy is on hand to play Olga, a mysterious Slavic slave girl who helps Amleth in his quest. Not only is Taylor-Joy a good actress but it’s like she was genetically engineered to play roles like this one. She excels at playing mysterious young women who can, as Olga herself says “break men’s minds.” It’s something she’s been good at since her feature film debut in Eggers’s first film, The Witch. But the best and most nuanced performance in the film might be Nicole Kidman in her role as Queen Gudrún, Amleth’s mother. All I’ll say for the moment is that Kidman pulls off a really good Norse accent, because anything else would be spoiling what turns out to be a really interesting character.
But for all the great acting, this is totally Eggers’s show. Pound for pound this might be the best Historical Action film since 2019’s Il Primo Re (The First King). Nothing in his two pervious movies would lead you to believe that Eggers was a great action director but holy hell the guy directs the absolute bejeezus out of this movie’s fight scenes. That’s right, these aren’t battle scenes, they’re fights. The biggest, a Viking raid on a Rus village, is little more than a running skirmish between two or three dozen men. These are nasty, up close and personal brawls. And yet every sword cut, and every shield slam is perfectly framed. The sound design has a lot to do with the success as shields splinter, flesh tears and swords clang on one another with grueling realism. I’m slowly building this theory that horror filmmakers are actually in secret, some of the best technical directors in the industry. I feel like this has been true ever since Sam Raimi brought Spider-Man to the big screen and more recently when Justin Lin (late of Saw and the Insidious movies) turned the Fast and the Furious franchise into a multi-billion dollar profit machine. I guess if you can scare someone in a movie, then you can illicit all the other emotions too. Neither of Eggers’s last movies were out and out horror films, they were at the very least, horror adjacent. And while The Northman is even less of a horror movie than they were, you can see where Eggers is employing a lot of the same techniques. A lot of the movie’s most important scenes are all about building the tension to a crescendo followed by an explosion of violence, either physical or emotional. Every camera movement in this movie is motivated and the editing is as sharp as the main character’s magical sword. This stands out the most in the movie’s frequently gonzo ritual sequences. Which brings us to what really makes this an Eggers movie.
All three of Eggers’ movies have dealt with the supernatural to some degree. In Eggers’s first movie, there’s absolutely a witch in the woods of Puritan Massachusetts. We see her early on and her presence is felt throughout. The Lighthouse was a little more ambiguous as a lot of the mysterious goings-on are directly tied to the protagonist’s fraying mental state. This trend continues in The Northman where in we are privy to several sequences wherein the characters perform something like actual Viking religious rituals. These are the sort of mad pagan ceremonies where men pretend to morph into bears and hype themselves to die in glorious battle. History nerds of a particular stripe will get a serious kick out of a sequence that opens with a young woman saying “I see my father and my mother,” as she’s hoisted up by several burly men. And because this is Robert Eggers I’m certain that these sequences were heavily researched and at least attempting to be accurate. Each one of them, almost always shot by firelight casting deep shadows, helps us to put us in the minds of these characters. This is a world where life is cheap but death is sacrosanct. Before Amleth’s father, played by Ethan Hawke, dies, he emphasizes how important it is that he die in honorable combat so that he may be taken by a valkyrie to Valhalla. Later, Amleth is able to barter with his father’s killer by offering him the heart of a dead man so that the man might have a proper burial. That’s a legitimate bargaining chip in this world. The ambiance of this culture, of a world that’s more or less one step from heaven or hell at a moment’s notice helps to give The Northman something like a sense of verisimilitude. It feels real, because to the characters it is real, bear-men, night spirits, and valkyries included.
Which brings me to my chief criticism of the film. Eggers has already gone on record in interviews by saying that the process of editing this film and cutting down the runtime to fit a bigger studio’s expectations was a nightmare for him. And in a certain sense, I can see where he’s coming from. The movie’s first two acts are set up perfectly, moving at a brisk clip through plot points that flow into one another. The third act gets a bit more choppy towards the end. I think in some ways this helps the film as it feels like a lot of fat has been trimmed to make the movie as lean and understandable as possible. Which means it will probably do very well at the box office. I was surprised to see my own showing on a Friday night was pretty much packed. But the thing about fat is that its usually where a lot of the flavor is. Remember, I mentioned that Eggers isn’t just about producing historically accurate period pieces. He’s just as interested in deconstructing these periods, often through the supernatural elements of his movies. The Witch isn’t just about a spooky old woman in the woods of colonial Massachusetts. It’s about how the Puritan world view inevitably leads to paranoia and self-destruction. The Lighthouse wasn’t just a thriller about two men trapped on a barren island together. It was also something like a black comedy that took aim at a bunch of the nuances of male relationships ranging from the economic to the pseudo-sexual. The version of The Northman that released to theaters has some of this but its barely comparable to the thematic feasts that were Eggers’s first two outings. Odin willing, I’ll be publishing a second piece that really gets into the meat of things. I think the rituals, and some attendant dream sequences along with a handful of lines of dialogue point towards some really interesting ideas, but I digress. Sufficed to say, I hope that Eggers gets to put out a Director’s Cut of this. It’d be really cool to see his original vision come to life.
In the end, I’m actually a little surprised at how easy it is to sum up my thoughts on The Northman. It’s a killer action movie that will equally satisfy the alpha male dude bro and the history major who can tell you the difference between a longship and a gnarr. (Quick sidebar: both of those appear in the movie for what it’s worth.) It’s no nonsense meat and potatoes filmmaking. It’s a cinematic muscle car with a viking painted on the hood. It’s the type of movie that makes you go “they don’t make them like that anymore.” Which means its a bit of a rarity in Hollywood these days and it would be cool if this propelled Robert Eggers to his first big, mainstream hit. Not many folks are making movies like he is right now and it’s always cool to see unique voices get the support they deserve. It might not be a deep or as rich as his previous efforts (in its current form) but I’m happy with what I got and I’m glad I bought the ticket. Now if you’ll excuse me I need to find some mead so that I might toast my ancestors in Valhalla!