Robert Eggers is one of the best directors working today -- that shouldn’t be argued. His previous two films, The VVitch and The Lighthouse, are some of the best films of the last decade, horror or otherwise. Neither of them are what I would call accessible: not following a normal plot structure and having period-accurate dialogue, but they’re masterpieces for the audience they were made for.
The Northman is much of the same cloth as Eggers’ other films, which should be expected. Regardless, it’s easily much more accessible than his other films, following a (seemingly) basic plot, having (relatively) understandable dialogue and lots of action. It’s still not going to be for everyone though.
The Northman follows Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), the son of a Viking king and queen, played by Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman. When Amleth’s father is murdered and his mother is taken as a wife by his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), in a successful power grab, he’s forced to flee in order to avoid certain execution. Years later, after much training and killing, Amleth returns to take his brutal revenge on Fjölnir, free his mother from her bondage and take his birthright back from those who stole it from him.
This plot, while exceedingly simple, in theory, is deceptively complex. This was a welcome surprise for me; going in I expected a basic revenge narrative with nothing else to add to the plot, what’s given is much more morally grey. While I won’t get into specific plot details, flipping things on their head at the end of the film’s second act made me come away from the film much higher on it than I would’ve been otherwise. Eggers’ and Sjón’s script has constant surprises of various levels of importance, making it an engaging watch.
Eggers delivers, as usual, with The Northman, but I still think his other two films are better. To be fair, Eggers’ worst is better than most directors’ best effort. If anything, people will be able to see that Eggers is making movies that he wants to see, not really caring if they appeal to the mainstream, which should be applauded.
The Northman is the result of an estimated $60 to $90 million budget being given to a lauded indie film director, for better or worse, mostly better. That budget is substantially higher than the $20 million combined budgets of his other two films. The film’s distributor, Focus Features, was probably hoping for an accessible action film, what they got is kind of what they asked for, but not really. The film is not for everybody, not by a long shot. This is a film made for cinephiles with a few bones thrown to the masses throughout its two-hour and 16-minute runtime. I would credit much of the film’s inaccessibility to its historical accuracy, the film feels like a slave to it. Some will see that as a plus, others will see it as a minus; I fall in line with the former. I enjoy seeing the intricacies of Viking culture, it’s extremely interesting and deeply weird, but in a good way.
I knew going into my screening that the audience’s enjoyment would come with how fast they bought into what the film was going to give them. Some, like me, bought in immediately and greatly enjoyed it. Others, like the group of five to my right, only bought in for the action scenes and seemed befuddled at the rest of the film. I have a feeling the majority of people will fall somewhere in the middle of those two, enjoying it but wanting something more action-packed and fun.
That’s not to say that The Northman doesn’t have anything fun up its sleeve, it definitely does. There are several jokes in the film, which are all childish, that landed for everyone in the theater, mostly due to how unexpected they were. I don’t know why I didn’t expect to laugh, The Lighthouse has some legitimately hilarious moments. Regardless, don’t go in expecting to be bombarded with jokes, but expect a few quick jests that break up a mostly dark and brutal watch.
Yes, this film is absolutely brutal. The violence, while infrequent, is bloody, gory and extremely impactful. Swords, axes, knives and spears are all used to great and fatal effect. Some of the violence made me cringe, and some of it put a smile on my face. I deeply enjoy great practical effects, especially those having to do with gore and makeup, and there’s quite a bit of that here.
The majority of the violence is perpetrated by the film’s star, Alexander Skarsgård, who’s absolutely fantastic in the film. Skarsgård, who also has a producer credit, gives his all to the film. He’s completely transformed his body, going beyond what’s widely referred to as the Marvel physique, resembling the Norse gods he’s serving. Everything from his idle stance to his walk portrays Amleth’s fury and internal fire. He’s a force of sheer will and will stop at nothing to fulfill his fate, a theme the film hammers home repeatedly. Skarsgård plays the character perfectly.
The rest of this stacked cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Ethan Hawke, Björk and Claes Bang, also fully commit to Eggers’ brutal Viking epic, and it’s all the better for it. All of them are asked to do bizarre or physically demanding things to portray these characters or their culture and seemed to never bat an eye. If any of them would’ve half-assed it or hadn’t fully bought in, the film would’ve greatly suffered for it.
Taylor-Joy is the film’s second lead alongside Skarsgard, playing Olga, a sorceress slave. She’s similarly fantastic in the role, as she was in her first collaboration with Eggers in The VVitch, which was one of her first career roles. Taylor-Joy has exploded into the mainstream consciousness in recent years, mostly due to her roles in The Queen’s Gambit, Split and Last Night in Soho, The Northman will likely propel her even further.
Despite the ensemble cast, I think this film’s biggest strength is in how it’s shot. Whether it’s beautiful landscape shots or brutal long takes in action scenes, cinematographer Jarin Blaschke delivers beautiful camerawork for the whole of The Northman. Eggers’ longtime collaborator has a definite eye for each of the three film’s distinct visual styles. Whether it’s the cold desolation of The VVitch, the square black and white claustrophobia of The Lighthouse or the fiery and dreamlike nature of The Northman; Blaschke adapts to each style and delivers beautiful work that often resembles a painting when paused.
Eggers’ ever-changing visual style heavily contributes to his continually strengthening filmography, even if it’s just the small things. The majority of the visual touches in The Northman that make it stick out will most likely go unnoticed by the majority of people. For example, the nighttime scenes are desaturated and blue, almost black and white at times. It’s gorgeous and gives this mystical film an extra ethereal edge.
I think The Northman is great, but I know many won’t feel the same way. It is much more accessible than Eggers’ other two films, but I think it’s just not as good as them. Those other films are much more tight and artistic, and I feel they are damn near perfect. The Northman has issues with pacing, feeling a bit overly long and repetitive at others. Regardless, you should support this film at your local theater. Even if the whole of it isn’t for you, you’ll find something to like in it. Supporting a big-budget auteur film like this is massively important in a time where the only films succeeding at the box office are made by committee.