Few writer-directors torment their characters as brutally as Robert Eggers. His latest film, Viking revenge fantasy The Northman, is another compelling example of his twisted fabulist storytelling.
Now three movies deep, Eggers has emerged as a filmmaker fascinated by mysticism and the fragility of the human psyche. In The VVitch (2015), the bite of devout Christianity turned a family sour; The Lighthouse (2019) took two superstitious lighthouse keepers down the road to perdition. With The Northman, Eggers sends another broken soul to the brink of madness, culminating in another folkloric psych-thriller loaded with omens, brooding accents and violence. (The latter being kept in its au naturale authenticity.)
When we first meet young Viking prince Amleth (Oscar Novak), we see a wide-eyed child excited by the return of his war-weary father, King Aurvandill (a shoulder-length haired and scruffy Ethan Hawke). To die in battle would be rewarded by a Valkyrie embrace; the upholding of Viking beliefs permeating throughout the film. Their Nordic kingdom is a quaint, isolated village shrouded in snow. Their loving reunion is followed by an ecstatic changing of guards, with the battle-hungry king bestowing upon his enthusiastic offspring the responsibilities of his kingship. Queen GudrÃºn (Nicole Kidman), Amleth’s mother and wife to Aurvandill, is ethereal in appearance; adorned in white garb and distinctive auburn hair that glows like fire.
When great tragedy strikes, Amleth flees his homeland, running off into the unknown only to be adopted by a band of wolf-worshiping Vikings. Now, many years later, Amleth has transformed from a hapless boy to a rugged, muscle-bound man-mountain (portrayed by Alexander Skarsgård) willing to travel to hell and back to exact his Viking vengeance. In one of Skarsgård’s first appearances in the film, we witness an impressively shot raid sequence demonstrating Amleth’s combative prowess; his reflexes are as sharp as the weapons he wields.
Equipped and finding the opportunity to exact his revenge, the details of how to execute coming from an otherworldly Seeress (BjÃ¶rk), the steadfast Amleth journeys to picturesque Iceland, biding his time undercover as a slave before coming in swords blazing.
Given the proliferation of fantasy content, The Northman becomes Eggers’ most accessible film. His storytelling is extrapolated against the confines of a fantasy epic, a rather fitting result given his commitment to ye-olde English and long passages of foreboding speech. Though that is not to say that these techniques are as aggressively deployed as they have been in his previous work. Despite the stupendous budget, Eggers’ artsy flourishes are present, with the constant use of close-ups to present internal conflict and use of vast landscapes to establish feelings of isolation – though not deployed in the same claustrophobic manner as they were in the squared aspect ratio of The Lighthouse – being applied by Eggers and team.
The sound of the Viking Age comes alive in Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s blistering score, containing several textures ranging from thunderous galloping to the bellowing arrangement of droned Viking chants. This not only imbues an epic quality to the film but adds a palpable sense of mood that adjusts to the emotional heat of the scene.
At a mighty two hours and twenty minutes in length, the film does extend itself in the middle section, relying on Eggers’ gravelly spoken wordplay to keep the film afloat. It works in large part, though given the extravagantly gruesome execution of the violence, you can’t help but crave for more. (One character on the receiving end of multiple frequent brutalities meets their comeuppance with sardonic misfortune.) Eggers constructs fight scenes with exhilarating flare, empowering long takes – undisturbed by editing – to exacerbate the tension.
In terms of performances, the cast of The Northman tunes in perfectly to Eggers’ unsettling frequency. Skarsgård, in particular, carries the film, exhibiting a wild and primal energy reminiscent of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance in The Revenant (2015). He is unafraid to run and howl with the wolves. Rounding out the cast include the wonderful likes of frequent Eggers collaborators Anya Taylor-Joy and Willem Dafoe.
The Northman is a film that cares just as much about explosive displays as it does the intimate, giving air to internal and external turmoil in equal measure. Eggers’ uncanny touch embellishes the film with a fantastical quality that never derails the drama, creating a fevered gut-punch of a film that speaks to themes of masculinity, connection and kismet.
“We all go a little mad sometimes,” said Norman Bates. In the case of Eggers’ body of work, there is no “sometimes” about it.