Latest entry in action-fantasy field is bold, bloody, and bonkers

Alexander Skarsgard plays a Viking on a quest to avenge the death of his father in The Northman.

The Northman, an ambitious deep dive into 10th-century Viking myth by Robert Eggers, is many movies at once: Bold and beautiful, bloody and completely bonkers, it marks a visionary and visceral high point in the post-Game of Thrones action-fantasy sweepstakes, whose main metric of success seems to be packing in as many beheadings, blood feuds, and examples of medieval arcana as possible into ‘twas-ever-thus commentaries on man’s inhumanity to man.

All those boxes are dutifully checked in The Northman, with alternately impressive and inane results. Alexander Skarsgard, who conceived the film with Eggers, plays Amleth, who was heir to the kingdom of his father, Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), until his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) arrived on the scene. After witnessing his father’s brutal murder, the dispossessed prince adopts a mantra he will repeat throughout The Northman: “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjolnir.”

A little on the nose, but OK. For the next two-plus hours, The Northman chronicles Amleth’s quest, which takes him from the north Atlantic to the Slavic Land of Rus to Iceland. Viewers who have noted the narrative scaffolding for Shakespeare’s Hamlet will have a vague notion of how it all turns out.

But there are still surprises in a film that pulls from a wide range of sources, including good old Sophocles. The mother Amleth seeks to rescue, a Botticelli-haired queen named Gudrun, is played by Nicole Kidman in a slyly subversive turn. She owns one of The Northman’s most arresting reversals, in a scene that proves yet again why she might be the most adventurous actress of her generation. (Even amid a jumble of accents that sound like they came from all the houses of Gucci, the performances in The Northman are uniformly excellent, especially when it comes to Bang’s interloper and his own entitled eldest son, played by Gustav Lindh with nastily convincing menace.)

Fans of Eggers, who made a hugely promising debut in 2015 with The Witch, followed up by the bizarre two-hander The Lighthouse in 2019, know the director is something of a fetishist: He’s fascinated by ritual, runic mysticism, and physical mortification, as well as visual compositions that favor firelight, shadows, and bravura camera work. The director has called The Northman a cross between Andrei Rublev and Conan the Barbarian, and that high-low aesthetic is very much in play. Eggers channels the great Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky in scenes of astonishing historical detail, patient observation, and hallucinatory strangeness. Early in the film, Amleth and his father — played with breathtaking ferocity by Hawke — take part in an initiation ritual that involves them crawling on all fours and howling like dogs; the visions escalate throughout a film that at one point features the Icelandic singer Bjork as a “seeress” draped in cowrie shells, feathers, and wheat stalks.

As arresting and elaborate as the images are in The Northman, there are just as many sequences that revert strictly to pulpy, B-movie type. As an heir to such recent films as The Green Knight and The Last Duel — not to mention Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla RisingThe Northman lavishly rewards fans of the swords-and-vandals genre, even if it leaves the rest of us in bludgeoned, bemused awe. Whether in the form of tribal battles, man-to-man combat, or even a brief game of primitive rugby, the grunting, bellowing, and bestial impaling never cease in a world of birthright, honor, and aggression that seems to have sprung from the imaginings of Robert Bly at his most febrile.

I promised myself I wouldn’t use the term “toxic masculinity” in this review (oops), but that concept forms an unmistakable ostinato in The Northman, which Eggers co-wrote with the Icelandic novelist and poet Sjon. Not only does Gudrun exemplify a particularly edgy brand of feminine strength and agency, but Amleth eventually becomes ambivalent about what he calls “the freezing river of hate that runs in my veins,” mostly with the help of a sylphlike slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). “Your strength breaks men’s bones,” Olga tells him. “I have the cunning to break their minds.”

That feminist nod is but a punctuation point in a story that bemoans the suffering caused by atavistic patterns of aggrieved and insecure men seeking to prove their worth by fighting, raping, and taking. It’s impossible to watch The Northman and not think of Ukraine, where yet another variation on a timeless theme plays out in a modern-day Land of Rus with sadistic futility.

Still, as much as Eggers might think he’s critiquing that cruelty and self-serving superstition, he indulges in their vicarious thrills with far more enthusiasm and voyeuristic extravagance. Blood, gore, honor, and revenge will always be the hoariest staples of cinematic grammar, no matter how cleverly they’re undercut. Ultimately, The Northman isn’t just about fatalism at its most epic and overwrought, it suffers from it, too. ‘Twas ever thus, indeed. 

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