Something about “The Northman” is a little unfair. As much as any filmmaker can try to make something intriguing and novel to strike a chord with the audience, little can match the intensity and excitement of a Viking revenge thriller. Director Robert Eggers clearly knew this when making the film, but even with the inherent coolness of the concept, he still went above and beyond to actually deliver it. “The Northman” isn’t particularly deep or complex, but it doesn’t have to be. The story is one that has been told many times before, but it’s delivered in such a striking way that it doesn’t feel stale. At the end of the day, “The Northman” knows exactly what it needs to be: a slick, violent epic with an awesome soundtrack and eye-catching setpieces. And that’s exactly what it is.
This is Eggers’s third film and a significant departure from his previous two works. Prior to “The Northman,” his oeuvre consisted of two New England-based atmospheric horror films, “The Witch” (2015) and “The Lighthouse” (2019). The switch from New England horror to Nordic thriller may seem to be a sea change, but the dark and gloomy atmosphere of Eggers’s previous work transitions seamlessly even as the genre switches.
Echoing “Hamlet” and “The Lion King,” “The Northman” tells a tale we’ve all heard before. The young son of a king gets betrayed by his uncle, so the boy has to go into exile with the intention of coming back to the kingdom and avenging his father. The prince in this story is Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), son of Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) and Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Amleth is fiercely loyal to his father and is with him when he gets slain by Fjölnir (Claes Bang). After that, Amleth flees his kingdom, gets raised as a Viking berserker and eventually stumbles upon a seeress (Björk) who prophesies that it is Amleth’s destiny to overthrow Fjölnir.
The film follows Amleth’s quest for vengeance, which is about as bloody as you would imagine a fictionalized Viking revenge tale to be. Many scenes in this film are not for the faint of heart, but they are also not unnecessarily vile. It’s in these plentiful violent scenes that the pure rage and grit of Amleth is conveyed in its most raw form. There are no filters placed on the extent he is willing to go, and because of that, the film becomes a deeply cathartic experience. The scars formed from the battles and the calluses formed from years of hard labor in the Scandinavian wilderness are all felt by the audience. At times the film is incredibly uncomfortable, but in the end, that’s what makes it such an unforgettable moviegoing experience.
This is a movie that should be seen on a big screen. The atmospheric sound design places you firmly into the barren and harsh environments. The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke is intimate, using many detailed close-ups of faces that convey intense emotion while capturing the beauty and brutality of the scenes. It is the driving force in creating intrigue in a straightforward story. The score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough adds to this atmosphere with its medieval brooding tone and a sprinkling of more ethereal sounds as well.
“The Northman” is a breath of fresh air in the current cinematic landscape. Almost every Hollywood action movie has to take place in the current day and focus more on explosions than hand-to-hand action. “The Northman” distances itself from this canon by highlighting the violence, darkness and discomfort of the medieval north. Nothing feels firmly in place, with chaos surrounding every frame.
But the film is far from pure historical realism. There are many allusions and direct depictions of the Norse gods and mythic figures. The world of “The Northman” is where prophecy is fact and not to be messed with. Spiritual rituals are shown to have real-world effects, and there is a deep connection between the humans and the gods. These mythical textures throughout the film make the narrative all the more compelling while also distancing itself from pure historical fact, diminishing any concerns about inaccuracies.
“The Northman” unequivocally embraces what it is, and it doesn’t back down. With a runtime just under two and a half hours, it is not a quick jaunt to the finish line. Not a whole lot of joy is present throughout –– the emotions are as barren as the landscape that surrounds them. Dropping all the technical assessments of the film, all that really needs to be said is that “The Northman” is awesome. It’s not really a film that you have to think your way through — rather, it’s something that you feel.
Finn Kirkpatrick is an arts & culture editor. He is a sophomore from Los Angeles, California intending to study Comparative Literature who likes to review movies and other things of that sort.