By Matthew Moorcroft
- Directed by Robert Eggers
- Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya-Taylor joy, Claes Bang
Robert Eggers’ fascination with myth and legend is the main focus here in The Northman, which ranks as easily his most ambitious and large scale film yet. While his prior films have had strong production values that mask their lower budgets when compared to their contemporaries, Eggers is gifted with $90 million here and thus his instincts are able to run wild with whatever kind of bizarre, yet intensely wicked thing his brain comes up with next. After all, half of the fun with his prior works was the weirdness and obtuseness; from The Witch‘s period accurate dialogue to The Lighthouse‘s full embrace of Lovecraftian sensibilities with dark comedy.
So on the surface, it may actually seem slightly disappointing that The Northman, for as wonderfully and formally strange it is at points with it’s usage of magic, visions of Valhalla, and bloody conquests, is also Eggers’ most simplistic in terms of straight narrative ideas. This is a revenge tale, through and through, and a gnarly, grisly one at that; the violence here, while not necessarily plentiful, is routinely nasty and some of most vicious you’ll see in a mainstream release this year. Guts spilling out of stomachs, intestines being used as nooses, and numerous beheadings are the name of the game here and each one escalates in a cacophony of violence more brutal then the last.
Alexander Skarsgård leads the uniformly excellent cast here, even if he’s overshown by Eggers himself and Jarin Blaschke’s terrific cinematography which manages to capture the grandeur of Iceland while also keeping you isolated. The film’s cold and detached approach is one that normally wouldn’t work for a revenge story like this but as an audience observer witnessing everything through a lens of neutrality, there is a real sense of objectivity that wouldn’t be found otherwise. And then the film rains fire and blood in the last act, and the visuals turn from cold and detached to simply lavish splendor, as if Eggers realized what movie everybody truly wanted to see and delivered in spades.
Still, it’s interesting that The Northman is more similar to The Witch thematically then The Lighthouse, and if anything The Northman feels more up in Eggers wheelhouse then that film’s enigmatic take on masculinity. The patriarchy and gender roles in society are the main targets once again here, this time weighing in on how it affects the men of this society as opposed to the women (though a bravura scene with Nicole Kidman’s character does flirt with the female side of things once again). When your whole character and life is defined by becoming that of your father and being “the rightful chief of your tribe”, the fascistic hate and lust for power will overtake you eventually. The Northman demythologizes the Norse in a way that’s particularly powerful; their violent society and ultimately ruthless tactics leave little in the way for sympathy or any of kind of objectivity to what is happening. Confronting your own internalizing toxic masculinity is a difficult process but it’s a necessary one for the future, and Amleth’s journey is less about the end goal of revenge but his eventual redemption in the land of Valhalla where he rejects the cycle of violence in his life.
It will be interesting to see if The Northman ends up being Eggers’ best in the long run (The Lighthouse, for my money, remains his finest work) but there is an unmatched craft here that isn’t really found anywhere else in movie theaters right now. In a time of consistent IP and multitudes of sequels, The Northman is a brilliant reminder of what an auteur at the top of his game can accomplish. And I don’t know, there’s something quite beautiful about that.