“The Northman,” 2022, directed by Robert Eggers — 4/5 stars
It’s a stroke of incredible luck that “The Northman” was even made. High-budget, R-rated period pieces are becoming increasingly rare; Ridley Scott’s “The Last Duel,” which performed well with critics and was one of the only movies of its kind in recent memory, couldn’t even make a third of its budget at the box office. Giving Robert Eggers $90 million to make a dense, relentlessly gory Viking epic was, to say the least, a risk, and one that hasn’t yet paid off; the film has only made $20 million in the first two weekends. For select moviegoers, though, “The Northman” is a cathartic scream of relief. Seeing skilled artists and actors working with such a large sandbox is an infrequent occasion, and Eggers’ striking flourishes and commitment to the genre fill a long-empty hole that “Gladiator” left in the industry for over two decades. While “The Northman” is far from perfect, leaving some of its larger ideas at the door in place of unabated brutality, it’s an incredible exercise in combining raw history, mythic storytelling and polished filmmaking.
Eggers has an incredible skill for bringing the past to life. He clearly has an affinity for folklore and oral history, with 2015’s “The Witch” constructing a distinct filmic setting that not only understood its origin, but had an earnest belief in the mythos that it drew from. “The Northman” is no different, combining what is clearly a tedious amount of research on real-life Nordic traditions with a beautifully visceral realization of the supernatural environment. This understanding of fables and legends makes for an astoundingly immersive experience, especially when Eggers draws photographically from forefathers like Akira Kurosawa and Terrence Malick. Massive, sweeping skylines dominate the frame, symmetrical structures stand out in high-contrast scenes, and deep earth tones glow under perfectly simulated daylight. This striking imagery feels even more profound when set to the primal, guttural score that feels just as grimy and angry as protagonist Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a fallen prince on a quest to avenge his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke).
As Amleth approaches his goal, slaying his traitorous uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) and saving his mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), Eggers’ script broaches some fascinating larger-scale ideas, but those quickly become muddled. The film integrates the mythic doctrines of ancient Iceland in a way that feels wholly natural, and doing so brings up some thought-provoking questions about the power of collective belief and the cost of vengeance. By the time Amleth viciously disembowels his fourth enemy, though, viewers looking for a more nuanced approach to more abstract themes will realize that the story isn’t setting out to expound philosophically in any capacity. It’s a perfectly acceptable and undeniably fun approach; the film is compact, self-contained and forthright, but it’s difficult not to feel that it leaves some loose ends that could easily by tied up by a certain recognition of the film’s more contemporary influences and affectations.
A technical triumph on all fronts, from the production design and costuming to the stellar, star-studded cast, “The Northman” is worthwhile for a theatrical outing. It doesn’t always confront its own themes in the way it should, but audiences would be remiss to let it pass by. “The Northman” is in theaters now.