- Courtesy Of Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features, Llc
- WOLF AT THE DOOR Skarsgård seeks vengeance in Eggers' brutal, visually stunning Viking epic.
What happens when you give a cult director a big budget to make a bloody epic about pagans? Nothing very good, according to Variety, which on Monday called Robert Eggers' The Northman "a cautionary tale about budgets gone wild" in the wake of its underwhelming weekend box office.
To anyone who saw Eggers' debut, The Witch — a puritan horror tale with semi-authentic period dialogue — the performance of The Northman in theaters is no surprise. For all of its rippling pecs, spurting blood and warrior ethos, this movie is considerably stranger — and more interesting — than historical blockbusters such as 300.
"I will avenge my father. I will save my mother. I will kill Fjölnir." This is the refrain of young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) after he witnesses the slaughter of his father (Ethan Hawke) by his uncle (Claes Bang), who proceeds to take violent possession of both the throne and Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Amleth barely escapes with his life.
All grown up, the prince in hiding (Alexander Skarsgård) is living the berserk lifestyle when he meets a seeress (Björk, who else?) who reminds him that "avenge Dad" is on his calendar. No one can defy the will of the fate-spinning Norns. So Amleth disguises himself as a slave and heads to Iceland, where his uncle Fjölnir farms sheep with his family. With the help of a cunning Slavic captive known as Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), Amleth sets out to even the score.
Will you like it?
The Northman features no hero's journey and, perhaps, no hero. Rather than being an epic in the modern blockbuster mode, it belongs to the category of revenge tragedy, a genre arguably perfected by Jacobean and Elizabethan dramatists. Among them, of course, was William Shakespeare, whose Hamlet derives from the same Norse legend (passed down to us in 12th- and 13th-century texts) as does The Northman.
The difference between Eggers' version and Shakespeare's is fascinating and instructive. Hamlet is a quintessentially Renaissance (and modern) hero, plagued by overthinking and indecision. Eggers' Amleth is no such intellectual. Raised in a culture that glorifies violence, he comprehends little else, though the perpetually bewildered look in Skarsgård's eyes suggests that he might be open to alternatives.
This Amleth embodies brute force but little moral agency. His ending is no happier than Hamlet's, but for different reasons. Eggers (who cowrote the film with Björk lyricist Sjón) plays with the contrasts: This film's equivalent of Hamlet's "Alas, poor Yorick" scene, for instance, is not meditative but floridly gruesome.
More than battlefield action, Eggers revels in depicting Viking daily life, lore and spirituality, such as a coming-of-age ritual steeped in psychedelics. In this movie, violence itself is a drug. The men are so busy getting high that the women, whose only weapon is words, have a tough time tugging them back to earth. The stark, hallucinatory imagery of cinematographer Jarin Blaschke puts viewers in a tripped-out state, too.
There's an inherent tension between medium and message in a movie like The Northman. On the one hand, Eggers seems to aim to resuscitate the raw pop power of the orally transmitted Amleth legend, before urbane poets and moralists got hold of it. On the other hand, he works in a medium rooted in the 19th century, the heyday of realism — an ethos that feels as antithetical to the Viking worldview as Christian morality does.
Much like The Green Knight, The Northman moves back and forth between a naturalistic and a supernatural register, not always smoothly. The film shows us material that heroic Norse sagas elide, such as the damage that warfare does to the common people. When Queen Gudrún explains herself to her son, it's a riveting monologue that reveals just how brutal this society is to women. But Amleth has no way to process a perspective that has no place in the stories of his era. Hence the scene ends up having an impact on the audience but not on the hero, who pursues his revenge quest with grim determination.
Like so many historical films, The Northman is as much about our own time as the Vikings'. There's little triumph in Amleth's revenge, because it enslaves him to a self-destructive performance of masculinity and a rigid notion of fate (the latter of which is, ironically, controlled and communicated by female figures). If anyone is victorious, it's the viewer of this immersive saga, who will emerge wobbly-legged, dazed and probably a little more appreciative of the relative tameness of modern life.
If you like this, try...
Valhalla Rising (2009; IFC Films Unlimited, AMC+, rentable): Another cult director, Nicolas Winding Refn, had a go at the Vikings with this brutal, atmospheric historical starring Mads Mikkelsen.
"Vikings: Valhalla" (2022; Netflix): For a more straightforward Viking adventure, try this sequel to the History Channel's "Vikings," set near the end of the era.
The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women by Nancy Marie Brown, a Vermont author who has written several popular histories of the era. If you're intrigued by the cultural practices depicted in The Northman — from women's weaving of intricate tapestries to funerals featuring bloody sacrifice — you'll relish the details in this book. Brown also speculates, based on archaeological finds, that some women had more power in Viking society than The Northman suggests.