By Alex McPherson
A snarling, fever-dream rampage of vengeance, director Robert Eggers’ “The Northman” can’t match its stunning attention to detail with an emotionally satisfying narrative.
Set during the Dark Ages, Eggers’ third feature is based on the text that inspired William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” In the fictional kingdom of Hrafnsey, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) returns home from a long voyage and ordains his son, Amleth (first played by Oscar Novak, then Alexander Skarsgârd), to become the tribe’s future ruler in an elaborate ritual featuring crawling on all fours, farting, levitating, and Aurvandil’s innards morphing into a magical family tree.
Soon after, tragedy strikes. Amleth’s cold-hearted uncle Fjölnir (a menacing yet layered Claes Bang) assassinates Aurvandil, wreaks havoc on the populace, and kidnaps Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Young Amleth escapes via boat by the skin of his teeth, vowing to get revenge, restore honor to his family, and fulfill his destiny.
Decades later, Amleth has become a ruthless killing machine, raiding nearby villages with a band of like-minded berserkers. After torching a barn full of townspeople, a feather-laden seeress (Björk) reminds Amleth to rejoin the path to slay Fjölnir. Amleth then disguises himself as a Slavic slave en route to Iceland, to the farm where his uncle eventually fled.
Along the way, he meets another slave, the alluring Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who presents a different path to take — if he has the will to recognize the power of love amid chaos.
Ultimately, “The Northman” shines less in terms of thematic depth or provocative characterization than it does in Eggers’ pure, balls-to-the-wall style. If nothing else, the film viscerally immerses us into a specific time and place, where heinous violence is an accepted way of life, and strict traditions dictate one’s future.
Indeed, Eggers throws viewers into an unfamiliar land of rugged vistas and simple-minded cruelty. Amleth’s mentality seems out of his control, forced upon him by what society expects, leaving little room for personal agency and boundless space for blood-letting.
There’s definitely merit in how “The Northman” unapologetically depicts its Icelandic setting and Viking cultural customs, visualizing the characters’ psychedelic visions in blunt, matter-of-fact fashion that doesn’t seem sanitized or toned-down for general audiences. Like his previous features, “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” Eggers depicts the mystical as co-existing with the ordinary, feeding into the characters’ archaic attitudes.
Bizarre rituals underscore their sense of “honor,” but also the traditions they are unable to break away from. The cinematography and editing emphasizes a mystifying and off-kilter world of gods and spirits they’ve devoted themselves to.
During several extended action sequences, enhanced by Vessel and Robin Carolan’s pulse–pounding score, “The Northman” opts for long-takes, which break that spell, illustrating the grueling nature of combat and encouraging us to judge Amleth as he becomes a beast before our eyes.
The spectacle is enthralling, for a while, as the utter intensity of Eggers’ filmmaking allows us to feel like we’re right in the muck along with him.
The initial adrenaline-fueled carnage becomes repetitive in the film’s latter half, though, where the previously expansive action is restricted to one primary location, and Amleth’s single-mindedness devolves further into grotesque, blackly comic delusion that’s even harder to care about.
Sadly, despite its spectacular style, “The Northman” doesn’t do enough to peel back the layers of Amleth’s damaged psyche. It follows a fairly standard revenge narrative, even resembling a video game at some points as Amleth receives instructions to “go here, get this item, and kill the bad guys.”
Moments of quiet reflection are few and far between, as Amleth — often saddled with clunky dialogue — goes about his murderous ways. His transformation from an innocent young man into a hardened killing machine is abruptly glossed over, as are the moments between the slaughtering where he starts to question his actions. He essentially remains a broken husk for much of the runtime, unable/unwilling to be vulnerable or consider the risks his acts of violence entail for those he cares about.
Skarsgärd does what he can with the material, roaring with gusto, but Amleth’s arc checks off archetypal plot beats without actually saying anything new about the price of revenge. Similarly, the ever-talented Taylor-Joy is given a simplistic love interest role that mainly serves to check off bullet-points on the way to an inevitable conclusion. The standout performer is Kidman, who lends Queen Gudrún an unpredictably unhinged quality that keeps viewers on their toes.
When the last drop of blood is spilled, “The Northman” lacks the heart and soul necessary to ascend into legend, but there’s enough achingly well–crafted filmmaking on display to declare it an honorable effort.
“The Northman” is a 2022 period action-adventure directed by Robert Eggers and starring Alexander Skarsgard, Anna Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe. It is rated R for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity and runs 2 hours, 20 minutes. It is playing in theaters April 22. Alex’s grade: B
Alex McPherson is an unabashed pop culture nerd who contributes movie reviews for Cultured Vultures and Pop Life STL. He is also a member of the St. Louis Film Critics Association.