Robert Eggers’ last two movies, The Witch and The Lighthouse, were set in New England. His latest film, The Northman, goes even farther north to Viking country, and it’s everything you’d expect in a movie about Vikings. It’s a giant slab of raw meat. It’s the sort of movie made to inspire whole albums of heavy metal music, where warriors do more than just vow, “We will drink blood from the wounds of our enemies.” They actually do it in close-up. It’s also a clever patch on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There are movies that you call “visceral,” and then there are movies where a guy actually has his intestines pulled from his body. This would be the latter. Enough tweet-length reviews of this. Let’s look deeper.
The story picks up in 895 A.D. on an island north of Britain, when young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) welcomes home his father, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), from a victorious war with his beloved brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang). The king thinks his son is now old enough to be initiated into manhood rituals, one of which swears the boy to avenge his father if he should die in battle. This happens almost immediately afterwards, when Amleth sees his father ambushed and decapitated by Fjölnir and his men. Nineteen years later, an exiled adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) has joined a tribe of Slav Vikings pillaging their way through Kievan Rus’ when a vision of a blind seer (Björk) and the news that Fjölnir has been deposed and exiled to Iceland put him back on his mission. He sneaks aboard a slave ship destined for Fjölnir’s village and bides his time there, waiting to kill his unsuspecting uncle until obtaining a sword named Draugr the Undead. How metal is that?
The Shakespeare parallels don’t stop there, as Amleth confronts the skull of the court jester (Willem Dafoe) and says, “I knew him.” Later, he hides behind a tapestry before confronting his mother and Fjölnir’s queen (Nicole Kidman) in her bedroom — unhappily for him, his mother turns out to be closer to Lady Macbeth than to Gertrude. Eggers and co-writer Sjón (a songwriter and collaborator of Björk’s who has been writing movie scripts since Dancer in the Dark) combine these elements with less familiar ones from the Icelandic sagas and Beowulf. It’s stitched together adroitly, and Eggers fiddles with the sound mix to make Amleth’s encounters with supernatural beings uncannier. When our hero has a vision of a Valkyrie, it’s not some dewy Nordic maiden but a revenant that looks ready to tear off someone’s head. So many movies about Vikings never convince us that we’re watching anything but actors dressed like Vikings. This one’s chanting in Old Norse and Old Ukrainian makes the film far more persuasive.
So do the off-the-charts levels of violence here, as Eggers employs smooth, disengaged tracking shots through the villages to show the Vikings slaughtering pregnant women and setting children on fire. I could have used some of The Lighthouse’s humor to provide some relief, although it is amusing that when Fjölnir finds two of his men dismembered by Amleth, he blames the Christians and their evil sorcery. Both Amleth and an enslaved Ukrainian peasant named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) have access to their own witchery that the other finds strange, which leads to a “how did they do that?” shot when she utters a spell bidding the winds to propel their sailboat, and the camera pans up from her face to the sail filling with air. The performances here are appropriately savage, and Bang, the Danish actor who played weak men so memorably in The Square and The Burnt Orange Heresy, impresses by conveying a bloodlust that persists even though it costs him everyone he cares about.
That’s a running theme here. Amleth is given a chance to live a happy and peaceful life with Olga, and he abandons her and their unborn children to take his long-delayed revenge on Fjölnir. He might be right that the deposed king will keep hunting them unless he’s dead, but after a seer (Ingvar Sigurđsson) has given him a choice between love and cruelty, he picks the latter. The Northman brings his quest to an end by a burning lake at the gates of Hel, the afterlife realm from Norse mythology. Amleth’s macho Viking ethos of conquest and retribution leads to this desolate place of blood and ash and dead bodies as far as the eye can see. Seems like a bad way to end.
Starring Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy. Directed by Robert Eggers. Written by Robert Eggers and Sjón. Rated R.