With The Northman, Robert Eggers takes “go big or go home” to new heights. Coming off the isolated paranoia and loneliness of The Lighthouse, Eggers presents his latest film, a sprawling epic rooted in Norse mythology as much as it is its titular character. On the quest for vengeance, Alexander Skarsgård’s Amleth has three prime motives. Conveniently enough, they serve as the simple tagline for the film: Avenge father, save mother, and kill Fjölnir. Forced to flee his home in light of betrayal, Skarsgård is adopted by the wild. Less like the qualities one would see in Tarzan or The Jungle Book, Amleth becomes something untamed and savage. A ruthless beast that howls at the moon or one that literally foams at the mouth as arrows and spears fly past him. Over the course of the film, Amleth is a wicked spirit that has been left to fester in the body of a rabid animal uncaged. Whether the consequences of a typical revenge story catch up to him is at the mercy of Eggers and co-writer Sjón.
Unfortunately, this is where the film finds some uneasy time when searching for its footing. In any tale of vengeance, it feels as if two primary outlooks can be taken. It must be either a cautionary tale to the perils of bloodlust, or vengeance from a character so irredeemable that it doesn’t matter to the audience whether or not they live past achieving their goal. And in 825 when Vikings had no qualms razing villages and committing deep atrocities, it would seem the latter outlook would be taken. Yet Amleth becomes much more than just a mindless killing machine, and it isn’t until about an hour into the film that a crucial moment in the script allows for the more interesting thematic elements to take hold. Now, that’s not to say the first hour of The Northman is lacking by any means. On the contrary, it’s a film that revels in its ability to leave the audience wide-eyed by both its scope and cinematic imagery. It’s as brutal as can be, and sets the stage fairly quickly, wasting no time in getting to the meat of the story. In this case, the main course is a vindictive journey fueled by wrath and blood.
One of Eggers’ more profound strengths is his ability to take the metaphorical and rip it into the real world. However indescribable something may seem, he has a way of channeling those uneasy sensations into genuine horror. While The Northman is perhaps the least metaphysically horrific of his three films, the real world this film takes place in is dreadful enough. Where loved ones could be ripped away in the name of sacrifice or simple bloodthirstiness, Eggers takes a different approach to his usual methods. Rather than channeling internal emotions outwards, we see outward emotions channeled inwards. Yes, there are a plethora of moments where internal battles of choice are personified into literal conflict or fantastical intervention. But in the moments near death or something as simple as grabbing a sword, we witness Amleth struggle with his feelings. Grappling with something he long rid himself the pleasure of, it’s fascinating to see how these emotions get unleashed on those around him. Much praise must surely go to Skarsgård, who seems to have genuinely put it all out there and then some. It’s an utterly engrossing performance that had to stay at soaring heights for what feels like an eternity.
In a statement on the film, Eggers touches on how “Viking Age art is rich, intricate, and complex… it is abstract”. And while The Northman may take a core story that is a tale as old as time itself, Eggers’ third film proves to be his most sprawling and grand yet in every element. A true period piece sinks the viewer completely into the confines of the time period it is rooted in. And from the handmade ships and weapons to the intensely detailed costumes and buildings, the production design of this film deserves massive praise. Hundreds of hours of research and even more crafting time went into everything seen on screen, and its power is felt extensively. The Northman is able to seamlessly blend the line not just between Viking history and fantasy, but also between cinema and reality. Even down to the score, Eggers wanted to use distinct instruments from the Viking Age. While some liberties were taken, the score that was crafted is one which will get the blood pumping faster than it ever has. Because as great as thematically dense films are, sometimes there is nothing better than watching two men bathed in a mixture of blood and sweat confront one another on an active volcano set to hypnotic chants and rhythmic music.
All in all, The Northman feels like the perfect starting film for diving into Eggers’ short, but already thrilling and commendable career. There’s enough hiding beneath the surface of this film to garner a rewatch, it’s the most visually thrilling yet of his films to have audiences craving more, and it provides an exemplary scope of what his smaller films hone in on. This is a big budget film and the final product is plenty proof that the money got spent wisely. While some will surely criticize Eggers for moving away from his intimate films, it feels equally impressive that he was able to take such a lofty narrative and boil it down to something that feels authentic to his oeuvre. The Northman has been highly anticipated for some time, and Eggers has finally arrived with his Viking ensemble to satiate not only Amleth’s bloodlust, but our cinematic appetite.
Focus Features will release The Northman in theaters on April 22, 2022.