Co-written and directed by Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse, The Witch), The Northman is a feudal era revenge tale featuring numerous beheadings and chaos, and that isn’t even the weirdest part. There’s an interesting narrative tap-dance throughout if magic is actually real or just a bunch of yahoos hollering hooey as coincidences happen. Also there’s a bundle of betrayals, multiple tracking shots and lots of gore. It may save the most hardcore action bit until the very end but there’s nothing wrong with that. This is a dark, messy flick that sometimes slows down quite a lot to let the visuals breathe but it has lots of bombastic moments of lunacy.
Amleth (Oscar Novak) is a prince living with his mother, Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) and is overjoyed at the return of his father, the Viking King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke). With the help of his father and the court Fool, Heimir (Willem Dafoe), Amleth is on his way to becoming a man however that journey hits a serious snag when his uncle, Fjolnir (Claes Bang), murders Aurvandill to become king and take Gudrun as his own. Amleth escapes and swears revenge for his father, to save his mother and kill Fjolnir. Years later Adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) has joined a crew that pillages villages. One day he hears about a group of slaves that will be sold to King Fjolnir so he disguises himself as a slave to enter his uncle’s compound. There he finds Fjolnir’s two sons, the older and mouthy Thorir (Gustav Lindh) and the young and brash Gunnar (Elliot Rose), and his mother living a seemingly happy life. With the help of a slave girl who also happens to be a witch, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), Amleth tries to drive his uncle mad by destroying his house, his swordsmen, his family, everything. But the reasoning behind the death of Amleth’s father may not be as simple as it seems.
Egger’s style is at the forefront, featuring long, lush, meticulous tracking shots along the chaos. There’s a visceral attack upon a village that shows how bloodthirsty Amleth has become. Another scene features Amleth in an ancient version of rugby/cricket/golf played with sticks, a wooden ball and fists which turns into a bloody mess. The final confrontation is the highlight as Amleth and Fjolnir hack it out inside of a volcano, like a mythological battle come to life. A lot of the fighting is very close quarters so there’s lots of splatter. When Fjolnir takes out his brother, Hawke supplies loud yelling that makes the moment seem like an epic bit of destiny. It’s not all chaos, there are very long moments of quiet and close ups of beaten up faces staring down the camera. It gives the film a palpable sense of unnerving menace but sometimes the ambience causes the pacing to drag.
Even though Olga says she’s a witch, and Amleth has to battle undead knights to secure a sword of prophecy, the movie never defines if magic is real or just jabbering nonsense. There are either moments of genuine magic or people are reading way too much into coincidences. Olga proclaims to the heavens about power and then a blast of wind dramatically unfurls the sails of a ship she’s on. Has she invoked the power of spirits or is it just a gust of wind? Amleth is told his magical sword cannot be unsheathed in the daytime so he is unable to take the sword out to strike down Fjolnir because the sun has risen. Is that magic or does he just believe the sword’s fairy tale? The question is never answered and it makes the film more interesting. Importantly, the people seem to believe in magic.
As the young Amleth, Novak makes the kid likable which pays off well when immediately stuff goes to hell and his father is killed before his eyes. Hawke plays the King as an aging warrior who longs to go out by the sword, and he gets his wish at his brother’s hand. There’s a very weird scene where kid Amleth and his father are pretending to be dogs as the Fool invokes spirits and Dafoe plays it freaky. Later, Dafoe even gets to monologue as a decapitated skull. As adult Amleth, Skarsgard gets in some great bits of epic bombast like when he goes to confront Fjolnir and starts yelling about having his son’s heart in his hand.
Taylor-Joy as Olga can look unassuming and meek until cornered. She says she can ruin men’s minds which she does by lacing their food with psychedelic mushrooms. Lindh and Rose as Fjolnir’s two sons each have standout moments; the elder son excels at being an unlikable jerk and the younger son often gets in the way which leads to tragedy. As the traitorous Fjolnir, Bang conveys his king being dangerous. Kidman as Gudrun gets a riveting scene when Gudrun reveals the secrets behind the death of her former husband as Kidman plays it very intensely.
The Northman is sort of a quasi-historical epic mashed up with a horror movie, revenge movie and magic fantasy on top of each other. There’s a lot of loud weirdness, witches and visions may be a bit confusing but it certainly is original, creating an experience vibrantly beautiful and shockingly vicious.
Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk and Willem Dafoe