Robert Eggers is a filmmaker who has quickly developed a reputation. It’s hardly a bad one, either. It’s simply one that suggests an immersive and singular experience that won’t be for everyone. So, what would it look like if Eggers took at least a small step towards the mainstream? Well, The Northman suggests something still very much his own, while offering up brutal yet crystal clear action. In making a violent Viking epic, he’s found a way to craft a revenge tale that audiences will go for, while not compromising his style. While not quite as weird as The Lighthouse or The Witch (or The VVitch, if you’d prefer), you’ll never mistake this for garden variety studio fare.
The Northman is Eggers doing a Viking version of Hamlet, which is an interesting pairing. On the one hand, it all plays out in a very clear cut manner. Explaining the story here won’t require too much effort and no one will ever scratch their head. Seeing how it’s depicted though, that’s another story. While this isn’t as obtuse as some of his prior flicks, The Northman still sees Eggers doing it his way. That’s a good thing, too. Especially on an epic scale like this, you just never see this sort of a vision allowed to exist.
In tenth century Iceland, we meet young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) on the verge of manhood. His father, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) has returned from battle to his son, as well as his wife, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Worried that his son is not ready for the realities of this brutal world, he begins a ritual with him, under the supervision of Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe). The next day, while out in the woods, Amleth sees his father brutally murdered by his uncle, Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang), taking the throne and kidnapping the boy’s mother in the process. Amleth escapes death, vowing revenge in the process.
Two decades later, a grown Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is now a vicious Viking, raiding Slavic villages, but with a singular goal in mind. All that matters is saving his mother, killing his uncle, and avenging his father. A chance encounter with Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) helps set him on the path to put this plan into motion. Much death ensues.
Everyone in the cast is completely committed to this vision. While I don’t know that there are any standouts, everyone knows exactly what they’re making and supports Eggers in achieving his goals. Alexander Skarsgård in particular is sort of a tool for the filmmaker, but it works. Eggers veterans like Willem Dafoe and Anya Taylor-Joy are also clearly happy to be on hand to watch him work again, even if the former doesn’t have a ton to do. The same goes for Ethan Hawke, but he’s obviously relishing the opportunity. Claes Bang and Nicole Kidman get surprising angles to their characters, but the focus is still mainly on Skarsgård. Supporting players here, in addition to the aforementioned Oscar Novak, include Björk, Olwen Fouéré, Gustav Lindh, Ineta Sliuzaite, and many more.
Filmmaker Robert Eggers doesn’t know how to make it easy on himself, but the results definitely speak for themselves. His script, co-written by the poet Sjón, is as precise as his direction. The second act doesn’t quite engage as much as what bookends it, which is notable with a more than two hour running time, but it’s never a boring movie. Everything is clear, crisp, and even the more ridiculous elements are given weight. It’s a big gamble of a film, and if it doesn’t quite go for broke, it still walks a tightrope that’s impressive to witness.
The Northman is destined to be a bit of a cult favorite, but it may also have a chance at more. Audiences just don’t get this sort of scale anymore in things that aren’t dumbed down, so there’s a shot that this film really does catch on. Even if the box office doesn’t ultimately suggest it, this is the kind of movie to celebrate. Mostly, you’re left wanting more, both from Eggers, and from other filmmakers who can paint on a grand canvas like this.