Cinema Dispatch: The Northman

The Northman and all the images you see in this review are owned by Focus Features

Directed by Robert Eggers

So not only did The Daniels make one of the best movies I’ve seen in a long time, we got a movie from Robert Eggers just a few weeks after! Either someone out there likes me or I’m being set up for a huge downfall, which admittedly is thematically consistent with Eggers’ other work. Both The Witch and The Lighthouse were two of the best movies in their respective years and it looks like Hollywood is taking notice as they’ve given him a blank check to make his unique form of creeping dread and otherworldly terror as big and bombastic as any summer blockbuster! Do the bigger budget and expansive production give Eggers the room he needs to make the best movie of his career, or is he better suited for something on a much smaller scale? Let’s find out!!

Back in the time of The Vikings, there was a king named Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) who was unjustly slain by his own brother (Claes Bang) in front of the young prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) in a power grab for his kingdom and his queen (Nicole Kidman). The prince manages to escape and swears vengeance on his uncle which he nurtures into a finely distilled ball of pure rage and spends the next twenty years bulking up and kicking butt until he is ready to take back his kingdom. Now a grown man (Alexander Skarsgård), Amleth pillages the countryside with a group of like-minded and similarly buff Viking dudes until he gets word that his uncle has been deposed and is living with the queen and their two sons on some farm in Iceland. He heads over there on a slave ship to try and get close to him while meeting the fair maiden Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who may or may not be a witch, and is similarly interesting in killing the man who will be enslaving them both. Amleth manages to stay unrecognized as he becomes one of his uncle’s slaves and plots his revenge which includes sewing chaos during the night and stabbing dudes with a magic sword he finds. Still, this proves to not be as simple a task as Amleth believed it to be for all those years, and now he’s faced with the true consequences of his actions which forces him to weigh the cost of his vengeance against the balance he hopes to restore with that blood. Will Amleth be able to avenge his father, save his mother, and be the hero that would make Odin proud? Will his uncle catch wise to this hulking blonde brute being the instrument of his torment, and even if he does realize his identity, is there anything he can do to stop his nephew from carrying out his quest? Is it just me or does a blood feud really do wonders for your physique? I mean jeez, they didn’t even have EMS back!

[THENORTHMANCD1 – I guess when you can’t get whey protein in a jar you just have to get it the old-fashioned way by drinking the blood of your enemies!]

I’ve been a big fan of Eggers since he burst onto the scene with The Witch and I’ve been eagerly anticipating this movie for months. Because of that, perhaps I set the bar a little too high and the movie didn’t quite meet those expectations for me. It’s a big movie with a lot of story beats that simmer for a while and it just doesn’t have the snappiness or the moments of deeply unnerving tension that characterized his other films, but taking this on its own as a film outside of The Witch and The Lighthouse, it’s pretty darn great. The story, if a bit bloated, definitely weaves a compelling character arc for Amleth, and there are enough twists and turns throughout to keep you guessing as to what will happen next as well as dreading what is inevitable. Eggers’ eye for detail and heavily atmospheric cinematography are as strong as ever, and the extra cash is definitely on screen with big set pieces and a fully developed world instead of the very claustrophobic environments that characterized his other two films. It’s hard not to expect more of what we loved about his last two films, and even putting expectations aside this is clearly the bronze medal of the three, but the worst from him is still miles ahead of a lot of other filmmakers; or should I say rôsts!?

That’s right! I can google Viking words!!

Much like Eggers’ other works, it starts with a relatively simple premise and then adds layers of depth on top of it by really getting into the heads of its characters. Here we have a pretty classic revenge story that was in fact the inspiration for Hamlet (oh, it’s an anagram!) with a treacherous uncle, a mopey prince, and a light sprinkling of supernatural elements, but where that guy took to wearing dark clothes and trying to guilt-trip his uncle, Amleth’s rage and thirst for vengeance is much less subtle and involves a lot more stabbing. I mean sure, there was a duel at the end of Hamlet where a lot of people died, but I’m pretty sure Amleth’s body count eclipses the Prince of Denmark’s by a sizable margin. That’s one of the things that are noticeable right away; that our main dude is not much of a hero even in the genre of flawed vengeance-seeking anti-heroes. He goes through this tragedy at a young age and begs the gods for revenge, but then grows up to commit the same tragedy on others in service of his adoptive clan. I kind of wish they touched on this aspect a bit more because so much of the movie is still about following him and, essentially, rooting for him to succeed in his plot, but it does come back in some way towards the end when his quest for vengeance gets much bloodier and with many more tears than he expected. The rest of the cast is great as well with Anya Taylor-Joy playing an aloof maiden that puts herself into Amleth’s sinister plot, Nicole Kidman as Amleth’s mother Gudrún who starts small but really makes this movie her own once she needs to, and Claes Bang as the despicable uncle Fjölnir that Amleth is trying to kill. What I like about him is that he’s not all that exceptional of a villain for the time in which this movie takes place as Amleth himself has probably committed ten times the unjust murders as his uncle has, and the only reason he’s not the target of a similar quest is that his adoptive clan makes sure to kill all the kids before they can grow up to be the next Alexander Skarsgård. It’s a grim time without a lot of clear paths to peace or even healing which means that everyone is essentially being jerked around by fate and circumstance and we’re just along for the ride.

“You killed my father! PREPARE TO DIE!”     “That’s cool. I’m sure that will solve ALL your problems, right kiddo?”     “I mean… it’s worth a shot.”

None of this is necessarily reinventing the wheel as far as revenge movies go (Kill Bill literally starts with these same meditations on violence and revenge before even properly introducing the characters), but Eggers manages to make the old tropes work and it all creates a solid foundation for what are the much more interesting aspects of this movie; namely the cool Viking stuff! Perhaps his biggest strength as a filmmaker is the way he is able to immerse you into whatever time period his stories take place. The rituals, dances, prayers, and what have you, that everyone engage in is framed with a level of reverence that makes you understand why people would adhere to these principles and beliefs in these times. Spirituality in particular plays an interesting role in Amleth’s quest as a motivator and a coping mechanism. The greater lengths he is forced to go to in order to get his revenge puts a clear strain on him both physically and emotionally. It’s hard to still feel like you’re on the right side of things when you start taking that many lives, and as he gets closer and closer to his goal, the justifications for it start to slip away. It’s a lot to deal with psychologically, and no matter how many abs he chisels into his stomach or how nice his beard is, he’s not actually a stone-hearted stoic warrior of legend but a squishy mortal man. Just to keep himself going, he starts leaning harder and harder into the spirituality of it all; the more desperate, chaotic, and terrifying the situation, the more he’s willing to cede more of his free will to the higher powers. It’s not just a bloody rampage to satisfy his rage and settle a score; it’s a divine quest from Odin himself complete with magic swords and visions of the future. The movie stays ambiguous as to whether or not magic is real in this world and guiding Amleth on his quest or if he’s just imagining all these things, but regardless of how real they are, they are more than enough for him to stay on the path he’s on; wherever it ultimately leads.

“KILL YOUR FAMILY! KILL YOUR FAMILY! KILL YOUR FAMILY!”     “I get it already! You can shut up about it now!”

Without question this is a well-crafted movie with a solid plot, great performances, and some interesting examinations of spirituality through the framework of Norse spirituality, so let’s be clear that this is a really good movie. Now with that being said, I did not love this movie the way I did his last two movies and the problem is two-fold; the running time is too long and it doesn’t quite grip you as hard as it needs to. As much as I enjoyed seeing Amleth’s quest and the twists and turns that it took, it does take its time in places where I don’t think it really needed to and it slows down considerably after a very intense prologue. This is where my expectations probably got in the way but the trailer made it look like his quest would be a non-stop arduous climb of one violent encounter after another in search of his uncle, but his plan is much more subtle and contemplative than that which ultimately works for where the movie ends up going but it still feels like we’re spending too much time with him bumming around in the fields. This slower pace ends up feeding into the other problem which is that the peaks don’t quite reach the heights that I was hoping for before going back down to the troughs, and to put it bluntly there is no truly arresting moment; no scene where my breath caught in my throat and my blood turned cold. There are certainly moments where he was trying to capture that feeling, especially with an early Man-Ritual and the brutality of the final scene, but nothing in this movie was as terrifying as the ending of The Witch or as suspenseful as Pattison finally making it to the top of the lighthouse.

“So what’s the next step in this grand plan of yours?”     “I don’t know, a nap maybe?”

This is not Eggers’ best work, but I wouldn’t call it a disappointment either. It’s not quite a Sophomore Slump since this is his third movie and is still pretty darn good, but the general idea behind it feels relevant as this is by far Eggers’ biggest movie, both in terms of budget and ambition, and perhaps a little more seasoning would have filled in a few of the cracks here and there. I wouldn’t exactly put it up there with other great movies this year like Turning Red and Everything Everywhere All at Once, but I still think this is worth seeing if you enjoyed his other work; just be aware that it might wear out its welcome as it takes its sweet time to get to where it’s going. Maybe I just need something between this and Thor Ragnarok to really hit the sweet spot for me in terms of Viking action dramas. Oh wait, isn’t that the new God of War games? Okay then, scratch that. Just let Robert Eggers direct the God of War movie and I think we’ll end up with the best of both worlds!

4 out of 5

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