May 21, 2022

A Viking legend retold with such raw immediacy that its fjords of blood seem freshly spilled for the first time in 1,000 years.

All you really need to know about “The Northman” — a $90 million Viking revenge saga directed by Robert Eggers — is that every single minute of it feels like a $90 million Viking revenge saga directed by Robert Eggers. Both parts of that equation are worth celebrating outside of and in addition to the movie’s other merits.

Even if “The Northman” had been a dreadful bore — and not a primal, sinewy, gnarly-as-fuck 10th century action epic that starts with a hallucinogenic Viking bar mitzvah, features Björk’s first narrative film performance since “Dancer in the Dark,” and ends with two mostly naked men fighting to the death atop an erupting volcano — the simple fact that financiers had the chutzpah to bankroll such a big swing in the face of our blockbuster-or-bust theatrical climate would have felt like a (pyrrhic) victory against the forces of corporate homogenization, no matter who was behind the camera.

That “The Northman” was entrusted to a fetishistically uncompromising young auteur whose previous movie was a single-location sea shanty best-remembered for mermaid vaginas and Willem Dafoe asking, “Why’d you spill your beans!?” makes it even riskier to slot into multiplexes between “Sonic 2” and “MCU 28.” That the finished product viscerally feels like the work of the same artist — despite well-documented attempts to water it down — makes it something of a miracle.

And yet, in an environment so neutered by empty spectacle that critics have been conditioned to do Cirque du Soleil-level backflips for anything even slightly less than obvious — an environment in which mild surprises are treated like government secrets, and the shock of the new is such a rare event that we tend to relay it with the breathlessness of a UFO sighting — it’s important to note that “The Northman” isn’t satisfying just because it’s fun to see Eggers’ fingerprints smudged into every frame of such a big movie. It’s also (and more rewardingly) satisfying because the director’s signature handicraft allows “The Northman” to dismantle its modern context and retell a Viking legend with such raw immediacy that its fjords of blood seem freshly spilled for the first time in 1,000 years.

“The Northman” may fall short of being Eggers’ best film (its terse savagery doesn’t leave room for the emotional layering that allowed “The Witch” to burn so dark), but it’s undoubtedly the peak of his continuing effort to return some integrity to the past; to level the playing field between now and then by shooting period folklore with such historic fidelity that we experience it in the present tense. Just as “The Witch” is so unsettling because it renders sin with a Puritan sense of mortal danger, and “The Lighthouse” so febrile because it embodies the isolation of 19th century life on the fringes of sanity, “The Northman” is so grab-you-by-the-throat intense because it renders a Viking prince’s quest for vengeance as though fate were a force as real as the weather.

And that’s exactly how it might have seemed to a Norse warrior in the North Atlantic circa 915 A.D. His priorities displace our own; his moral urgency overpowers whatever “civilized” moral code we try to force onto this ancient story. If “Hamlet” is often reductively (and destructively) summed up as a tragedy about someone who can’t make up their mind, “The Northman” — which is based on the violent legend that inspired Shakespeare’s play — is about someone who never really had a choice.

All things are equal for Prince Amleth (initially seen as a 10-year-old boy played by Oscar Novak), who was born into a world where Valhalla is a place as real as the stony castle where he waits for his father, King Aurvandill War-Raven (a regal yet shifty Ethan Hawke), to return from war. And when he does, Aurvandill decides that it’s time for his son to become a man — a process that involves drinking spiked mead, howling at the moon while Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe) dances around them in a frenzy, and then looking upon the ghosts of dead kings that are hanging from Amleth’s family tree. “The Northman” doesn’t slow down to explain why Aurvandill is already among them, since Eggers refuses to make exposition out of anything that his characters might already know, but we get our answer soon enough.

The very next morning, in fact, as Amleth’s hot uncle Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang) makes good on his name by slaughtering Aurvandill and kidnapping the newly widowed Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman, finding all sorts of wonderfully florid notes in her role as a cunning damsel in distress). Fjölnir’s henchman assures him that Amleth — the rightful heir to the throne — has been drowned at sea, but that’s not entirely accurate. The truth is that Amleth has escaped, and, in the span of a single cut that spans 20 years, will grow up to be a homicidal berserker the size of a small house, “a beast cloaked in manflesh,” who pillages Slavic villages with his pals in order to feed his insatiable appetite for death while he scours the earth for his uncle.

“The Northman”

Played by a hulking Alexander Skarsgård, whose human bulldozer of a performance channels the actor’s usual menace in a compellingly ambivalent new direction, adult Amleth is basically what would happen if Tarzan micro-dosed the T-virus from “Resident Evil” every day for two straight decades. A swollen husk of a man who’s literally hunched from the hatred he’s been carrying since he was a child (or maybe that’s just what happens to someone’s posture when their neck muscle looks like a boa constrictor trying to digest a whole poodle), the guy doesn’t even flinch when his buddies arrow down some local peasants for sport. At one point, he catches a javelin from mid-air with his bare hand and hurls it back at the sentry who threw it in one fluid motion; it’s the start of a raid that Eggers choreographs in a brutal yet harrowingly even-keeled long-take, one of several transportive sequence shots that lend physical weight to the inertia of Amleth’s destiny.

And this is a character who moves forward on nothing but the wayward momentum of his own vengeance, which seems to have steered him off-course along the way. What he wants is clear — drink every time Amleth mutters “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir” and you’ll be dead long before he can do any of those things — but the man is little more than a mantra. He doesn’t have any quips or heroic tendencies. He never smiles. The only truly relatable thing about Amleth is that he gets valuable life advice from Björk, who brings raspy perfection to her brief cameo as a magical seeress who shows up to remind the former prince of his path.

His only soft spot is for a slave named Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy, going for a Gaga-like Transylvanian accent that benefits from being in a film of such extreme verisimilitude that even the most ridiculous choices feel right), who Amleth meets after learning that Fjölnir has absconded to Iceland, and deciding to disguise himself as one of his uncle’s newest purchases. And yet even the warmth that she inspires from him feels like a gnawing distraction from the task at hand. Kindness for his kin and hatred for his enemies might not be as mutually exclusive as those paths are first presented to Amleth, but little of the film’s tightly contained second half is spent hemming and hawing over what he will do next. On the contrary, “The Northman” only draws closer to the essence of Amleth’s fate as he ingratiates himself to Fjölnir by day and terrorizes his settlement by night, a cycle that’s segmented with chapter titles (e.g. “The Night Blade Feeds”) that reflect the morbid humor of a film that’s often funny but never in a winking sort of way.

“The Northman”

©Focus Features/Courtesy Everett Collection

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