starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Willem Dafoe
written by Sjón & Robert Eggers
directed by Robert Eggers
by Walter Chaw That Robert Eggers's latest film proves visually stunning is more expectation than revelation at this point. That it beggars traditional narrative tropes is also no longer a surprise, making The Northman a victim of, of all things, familiarity. There's even a moment about midway through where the natural beauty, the grandeur of the film's settings, works against it: being force-marched through the frankly-ravishing landscape, one slave essentially remarks to another that this place is a shithole. Imagine the claustrophobic vileness of the version of this film Andrea Arnold might have made. Aside from trodding the same frozen ground as the obviously superior Valhalla Rising, The Northman is merely extremely good-looking and very straightforward, for all its mythological underpinnings and ambition to be epic-feeling in terms of its royal melodrama. (No wonder: the ancient Norse folktale it seeks to tell is the basis for Shakespeare's Hamlet.) Sequences like an early coming-of-age ritual in a subterranean mud cathedral promise a picture as surreal and lawless as a Ben Wheatley joint (A Field of England. for instance), but rather than follow that path into Wonderland, The Northman barely reaches for the trippy heights of Eggers's previous film, The Lighthouse, and it's the first of his movies that doesn't require an active viewership. Indeed, the most surprising thing about it is how few surprises it holds.
Young Amleth (Oscar Novak) is about to get a backhand from his mother, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), for barging into her chambers unannounced when the reason for his intrusion, the return of King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), becomes clear. Their brief reunion--punctuated by a ritual in which the two crawl around like wolves while burping and farting like humans, overseen by court jester/high priest Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe)--is interrupted by the good king's assassination at the hand of his brother, Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang). A good clue for King Aurvandil that his life was in danger could probably have been found in his brother's name, but alas: tragedy ensues and Amleth escapes, Conan the Barbarian-like (Christ-like, come to think of it), for the whole of his adolescence, the better to hone his fighting skills, his atavistic lust for vengeance, and his intimidating six-pack. Amleth (now Alexander Skarsgård) returns disguised as a slave. A fellow slave, Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), who talks like Lady Gaga in House of Gucci and says to him that he better work on his sheep's clothing lest the shepherd discover him, to which Amleth gravely intones, "I kill the shepherd." This reminds me of two things. Firstly, of this one time I was buying a pig decoration from a thrift store and the young Russian woman ringing it up for me said, dreamily, "In Russia, we kill the pig." Second, of how we're long overdue for an adaptation of Sergio Aragonés's "Groo the Wanderer".
The first hour of The Northman is full of promise. Amleth's return as part of a marauding band of Vikings is thrilling and perverse: blood-soaked and stinking of atrocity. The romance of Vikings passed around certain fringe-unto-mainstream white-supremacist groups should be regarded as the dangerous, violent, despicable thing it is. Rape, indiscriminate slaughter, slavery; it should go without saying that "rape and pillage" is the enemy of civilization. Perhaps it's gone without saying for too long, and that's what's wrong with us. Perhaps what's wrong with us has always been wrong with us. The Northman is fairly unflinching about depicting the crimes of Amleth's adopted corsairs, though I felt the nagging sensation even throughout its superior opening that Eggers was holding back. The camera looks away too much. I expected to feel more uncomfortable about the violence. Maybe I've simply become too hardened to it. Anyway, Amleth eventually finds himself enslaved--by his design--by his uncle and mother, making a life for themselves in a lonesome fiefdom in Iceland after Harald Hardrada, conqueror (briefly) of northern England, absorbed Fjolnir's lands in the course of his campaign. The last hour of The Northman, then, is Amleth doing his best to fool his hosts into thinking that evil Norse spirits have descended upon them to chop up their guards and pin them to the side of a barn like a jigsaw puzzle of a centaur made of meat. Although there's a cool zombie fight in a hidden crypt for which Amleth wins a sword (really, the whole thing is like a live-action "Elden Ring"), it sounds more exciting than it is.
The Northman's final third is driven by a decision presented to Amleth between being kind to his family or cruel to his enemies. His solution is "why not both?," and, "doing one is doing the other." Everything Everywhere All At Once deals with this problem by leaning heavily into the idea that kindness is an act of extraordinary strength--a choice that is, in itself, extraordinarily courageous. The Northman is just more of the same old iron and, consequently, less courageous. Making a Viking movie about a murderous Viking murdering murderous Vikings is...fine. There were long stretches of this film where I thought to myself how this was a silly movie I was enjoying in the way I enjoy the Robert E. Howard pulps, and there are too-brief interludes where I thought it was going to be like one of Howard's rare forays into the Cthulhu Mythos rather than one of his more routine visits to the sulphurous Hyborean Age. There's a scene that points to what could have been. Amleth, on the verge of death, has a vision of a Valkyrie arriving to fly him to Valhalla, a sequence that reminds of the metaphysical freakout of another key source for the film, Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain. What I love about this moment, already arresting for its imagery, is how the Valkyrie (Ineta Sliuzaite), as she bellows a mighty war cry, reveals braces on her teeth. Brilliant. Matthew Barney-brilliant. Fucking brilliant. But that kind of thrilling, anachronous strangeness is pushed to the side in The Northman in favour of a familiar John Milius/Robert Bly shrine to restorative, retributive violence. What a shame.