I am admittedly predisposed to movies like The Northman — bloody, epic revenge tales with a strange angle, a hyper-specific period setting, or both. I’m also a huge fan of The Lighthouse, the previous film from writer/director Robert Eggers, one of the most unique American films of the 21st century. So the hype level for this flick was more or less at carrying capacity at this week’s screening, and Eggers and Co. did not disappoint. Starring Alexander Skarsgård as the vengeance-bent Viking prince Amleth, The Northman has Eggers’s blend of folklore and historical fidelity all wrapped up in a potent, ferocious epic. It’s not quite a perfect film, but it has some of the most stunning storytelling you’ll see onscreen this year.
Much has already been written on Skarsgård’s insane transformation into Amleth, a beastly and primal performance that puts the mere term macho to shame. Of course it’s far deeper than machismo, and Skarsgård imbues Amleth with a vulnerability that makes the character — and thereby the picture — really work. He’s doing everything Leonardo DiCaprio did as Hugh Glass in The Revenant, but unlike Glass, Amleth’s character is wholly defined by his relationships with others. His bond with his father and mother (Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman) and his hatred for his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) drive his every action. He’s frequently referred to as a wolf, and we see all sides of that metaphor: the young and uncertain pup, the lone stray seeking a home, the feral creature commanding a pack of other wolves, and finally the wisened alpha. Skarsgård goes all the way and then some, and Northman couldn’t exist without him.
Amleth’s most crucial relationship becomes his eventual love with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, reuniting with Eggers), a potionmaker also at odds with Fjölnir. Their bond is one of necessity but also one of harmony, Amleth’s beastliness tempered by Olga’s cunning, her machinations reliant on his sword. And of course two such personalities clash at first. “Show the shepherd you are a sheep,” Olga says, suggesting they play the long game. Amleth’s blind rage spurs him down a much more blunt path: “I’ll show the shepherd his death.”
Eggers excels at dreamy folkloric visuals and grimy period immersion, treating both as simple truths of the worlds he creates. Case in point: two of Northman’s best scenes couldn’t be more different. Amleth’s retrieval of the Night Blade isn’t the trippiest sequence in the film, but the wordless confrontation with the long-dead mount-dweller is still a sight to behold, recalling last year’s The Green Knight in its mind-melting impossibility. But later, a comparatively simple scene hung entirely on dialogue between Amleth and his mother will take your breath away in an entirely different sense. There’s no visual trickery afoot in this scene, but the dialogue and performances are equally enthralling. The Northman, like The Lighthouse, toggles between these realities without ever crossing the threshold of disbelief. The cumulative effect is spellbinding.
Contrary to much of Northman‘s buzz online, this isn’t really Robert Eggers going mainstream. It’s easily his most accessible film, sure, and the familiar faces onscreen do undertake a familiar revenge plot. More moviegoers will see The Northman than have seen The Witch and The Lighthouse combined. But there’s so much weirdness here that sets this film apart from, say, Braveheart or Gladiator, so many strange moments and sequences that would certainly have been cut from those other blockbusters. You can feel the loving research that went into each of those moments of weirdness, something you typically don’t feel in a studio epic. In everything minus the marketing for the film, Eggers’s hand is still very much present. (Alas, the marketing is a bit misleading — don’t expect more than a cameo from Willem Dafoe or Björk.)
Again, Northman isn’t without its flaws. Certain moments of supposed profundity (one in particular that sees Amleth speaking with his sword) fall short of the mark. The final duel isn’t anticlimactic, but definitely has room for more at the end of a movie that prides itself for much of its runtime on being gleefully too much. These quibbles hardly register in the moment, though. Eggers has crafted another delirious vision of the past, uncompromising in its integrity, and it’s a full-on miracle that we get to experience a big-budget Viking saga from an artist so attuned to minute details. Your fate is clear: put on your wolfskin pelt and go see The Northman in cinemas. To Valhalla!