The Northman feels like a film forgotten by the 80’s. A harkening back to a more fantastical brutality, it could have easily been a comeback vehicle for the likes of John Milius (Conan The Barbarian). While this might sound like a dig at Robert Egger’s latest, it is, in fact, high praise. It fits well within the camp of “they don’t make these like they used to”. And while Game of Thrones has had the monopoly on the high end sword and sorcery variety, The Northman grabs the genre by the throat and shakes some much needed grit and weirdness back into it.
Transporting us back to the cold and windy days of the Vikings, The Northman focuses in on young Amleth (Oscar Novak), son of King Aurvandil War-Raven (a gravelly Ethan Hawke) and Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Shortly after reuniting with his family, Aurvandil is brutally murdered by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) and his kingdom taken by force. Years later, the now adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a hunched over, muscle bound animalistic Berserker, in league with a group of pillagers, is put back on his course for revenge. It’s this course that sees him join forces with Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), a slave and witch, herself on her own journey for freedom. But the act of revenge can often be a hollow pursuit, and an eye for an eye is never as black and white has one would hope.
Much has already been said about Egger’s directing style. Some would describe his brand of creative vision as unique, while others would go with just plain weird. I would suggest that Eggers likes to swim in the absurd, and knows just how far he can push an audience before he loses their attention (or patience). It’s probably the reason why a film as out of left field as The Lighthouse is so popular, or why his earlier film, The VVitch is as effective as it is. And while The Northman is Eggers most accessible film to date, it’s not without its eccentricities that very much separate it from what could have been a run of the mill period piece. Eggers, along with co writer Sjón (Dancer in the Dark) often skirt the line of the harsh reality of the Viking Age and a more other worldly bent on the story. It has echoes of the John Boorman classic Excalibur with the brutality of Nicolas Winding Refn’s underrated Valhalla Rising. Eggers, not content with giving the audience a straight history lesson, presents a world where violence is a whisper away and the gates of Valhalla (or Hel) are ever present in everyday reality. Corpses swing mythical weapons, the decapitated heads of former jesters speak words from the beyond and icy blue eyed Valkyries fly the wounded from battle at the most opportune times. Or do they?
Skarsgård’s Amleth is often referred to as a beast in the film. And he is indeed beastly – a hunched over vessel of violence and destruction, he snarls, roars and attacks with the ferocity of a wounded wolf chasing after its prey. But he’s also the embodiment of pure, concentrated blinding rage. His own past tragedy has lead him on a path of mindless destruction, swinging his axe and sword and causing someone else’s tragedy. Skargård eschews any charm we’re otherwise used to, and is instead an ugly, twisted mess of vengeance. It’s in Amleth’s inability to see beyond his own past hurt and pain that Eggers and Sjón set up The Northman as a kind of anti-revenge film. We know early on that Amleth is headed for a hollow destination of blood letting and Eggers does well by masterfully snatching away any feeling of catharsis one would normally experience within this genre.
Indeed, while The Northman is a film dealing with the more tried and tested elements of the revenge genre, it might leave some viewers feeling a little short changed. It’s not a film as blood soaked as one would expect (although there is a heaping serve of it, regardless), and there a good stretches of the film that are incredibly pensive, leaning to the more cerebral. However, for those fans of Egger’s previous work, this is Viking cat nip for them. For those new to his brand of cinema, Valhalla awaits in a unique and challenging vision.