'The Northman' review: Robert Eggers directs bloody, brutal, and insane revenge epic
Courtesy of Focus Features
If you took stock of what films get made theatrically anymore, a non-franchise, $90 million budgeted Viking epic with a jacked-up Alexander Skarsgård literally ripping out hearts, slaughtering men for looking at him the wrong way, participating in the deadliest game of what looks like crochet, and battling enemies, naked, inside an erupting volcano would not make the shortlist. But then again, few are making movies on the scale of director Robert Eggers, turning in the small budgets of “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” for something grander and caked in blood (No mermaids or beans in this one unfortunately).
Enter “The Northman,” a gloriously symphonic revenge journey based on the Old Norse legend of Amleth, a former heir who made an oath to avenge his slain father, and the character which inspired a little-known story called “Hamlet.” Although the final battle (and the battles in general) make “Hamlet” look like a cake walk compared to the brutal and nihilistic tendencies of Amleth who’s calculated plot vibrates under Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough's intoxicating score and Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography. It’s a strange movie that makes some bold decisions and Eggers is clearly having the time of his life.
Unlike “Hamlet,” “The Northman” turns in the tragic hero for an absolute savage. One could argue Hamlet had morals whose dilemmas kept him fraught at night. Not Skarsgård’s Amleth, whose biceps have biceps and thirst for death can only be quenched by disemboweling soldiers on the battlefield. The dude’s an animal who howls and belches at the moon while decked out in full loincloth attire ready to slit throats if the mood feels right. Amleth’s origin doesn’t take nearly as many twists or turns compared to the Shakespearean tragedy, instead boiled down to the nitty gritty: a revenge tale, but if a movie can ostensibly make you go: “Well, I’ve never seen that before” in the first twenty minutes, I’d say you’re in great shape.
Skarsgård, pushing the limits of one’s body and soul, plays Amleth, who as a young lad witnessed the murder of his father, King Aurvandil played by Ethan Hawke who gives a blistering, hypnotic final monologue. Killed by the hands of his conniving uncle Fjölnir (Chris Bang), Amleth (played as a child by Oscar Novak) retreats to a different life than the one which awaited him. Instead of growing up in rags and riches, Amleth watches his mother, queen Gudrún (a blistering Nicole Kidman who, late in the third act, gets a jaw dropping scene) marry Fjölnir and essentially start over, and he becomes indoctrinated into a culture of unflinching brutality, obsessed with a foretold prophecy of killing Fjölnir and saving his mom. Oh, did I mention Icelandic superstar Björk plays a haunting seer not far removed from the witches in Macbeth? You truly love to see it.
After a stunning, one-shot pillaging of a nearby island in the opening scene, Amleth hears the slave trade is heading to Fjölnir’s front door and decides to hop abroad a ship, change his look, and infiltrate the hierarchy where he meets (and eventually) falls in love with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joe). Co-written by “Lamb” scribe Sjón, “The Northman” always keeps the viewer on its toes, enlisting a variety of character performers (including a great Willem Dafoe) to help propel the story, which is overly familiar, to imaginative new heights. It would make an excellent double feature with David Lowery’s “The Green Knight.”
Eggers has shown over the years to be at the forefront of a new class of directors alongside Lowery, Alex Garland, and Ari Aster in creating vividly animalistic and lifelike stories about the endless cycle of violence and torment that’ll eventually come back to haunt you. Filmed on location throughout Iceland and Northern Ireland, “The Northman” also brims with a beautiful backdrop alongside the relentless and occasionally stomach-churning violence. Once you settle in for the ride and commit yourself to whatever hellish vision Eggers cultivates, “The Northman” doesn’t just subvert expectations, it obliterates them.
THE NORTHMAN opens in theaters Friday, April 22nd.