At just his third feature film under his belt after the richly atmospheric, The Witch, and the darkly absurdist, The Lighthouse, filmmaker Robert Eggers takes his deconstructionist approach to the Viking legend. His newest film, one that closely echoes Apocalypse Now, Conan the Barbarian, Apocalypto and The Revenant is the kind of trippy experience that fits perfectly alongside Eggers’ previous films, while delivering on the bone-crunching essentials to play to a mass audience.
King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) is betrayed and murdered by his brother, Fjolnir (Claes Bang), seizing control of his land and claiming his wife, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), as his own. The King’s son, Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak, before turning into Alexander Skarsgard), flees and vows to one day exact vengeance on his uncle on behalf of his slain father. Several decades later, in the Kingdom of Rus, Amleth has since become a barbaric warrior, slaughtering and pillaging local villages. When an opportunity arrises for Amleth to return to his homeland, he plots his mission to enact revenge by disguising himself as a slave to serve Fjolnir and his family.
The Northman is an epic revenge story that is razor-focused on a narrative level, but still has the complex, singular flourishes expected from director Robert Eggers. Undoubtedly his attempt at a pop epic, Eggers retains his storytelling influences of Tarkovsky and Bergman, but allows his grander filmmaking stylings to take center stage. If the narrative of The Northman can be accused of being simplistic, this is the story that inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet as well as the inspiration for Beowulf, this is just the template to allow Eggers to further his craft.
The brutal spectacle Eggers offers up features one staggering set piece after another. An awe-inspiring sequence early on captures a siege on a local village where Eggers’ camera, alongside cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, seamlessly travels in and out of burning huts where Vikings are viciously slaughtering one another as dozens of extras are fleeing around the space. It’s the kind of ambitious, unflinching sequence that calls to mind the frontier sequence in The Revenant. The framing and compositions are among Eggers’ most skillfully constructed thus far.
Eggers clearly revels in the increased budget being thrown his way, not only flourishing in showing the audience what one can do with the human bone, but in crafting what has to be the most historically accurate Viking epic ever made. Eggers is one of the most immersive filmmakers working today and every detail in the set design feels tactile and lived in. The auteur brings an aura of authenticity to every aspect of the filmmaking. The script, co-written by Eggers and Icelandic poet Sjon (Dancer in the Dark, Lamb) has the proper vocabulary of the era, without quite the density of the dialogue in Eggers’ previous films.
When Eggers gets to tap into his surrealist stylings such as moments of hallucinatory visions of the cosmos and witchcraft, Bjork makes a brief, trippy appearance, you can sense the massive amounts of detail and research in his visuals. You can feel the heavy amounts of mud and spilt blood just as much as the textures in the costumes. He also expertly builds the stakes, setting the stage for an incendiary finale set at an erupting volcano. This is a film that overwhelms both visually and sonically, with a robust sound design made to rumble your soul.
The Northman is populated by a first-rate cast, led by a commanding Alexander Skarsgard. The actor, who rose to prominence with television roles in True Blood and has become a commanding character actor, hasn’t had the cinematic performance worthy of making him a household name and The Northman should likely change that. Skarsgard has an unparalleled physicality that gives this character an unforgettable presence. Anya Taylor Joy has an underpinning of warmth amidst a role that echoes Lady Macbeth. Claes Bang makes for a seething villain and Nicole Kidman is given more layers to a typically thankless role.
The Northman continues Robert Eggers’ streak as one of the most unique and formally daring new filmmakers working today. Eggers has crafted a jaw-dropping revenge epic that will be remembered for years to come.