(Check out this movie review of The Northman, the latest film from Robert Eggers. Seen it?Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)
Worried that Shakespeare’s Hamlet isn’t gory enough? Have no fear. Director Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse) is on the case with, The Northman. Taking the ancient Norse myth of Amleth and giving it the violent cinematic treatment it deserves, recalling Zack Snyder’s 300 and George Lucas’ Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith—albeit with greater artistry than either—Eggers creates a powerful meditation on toxic masculinity that masquerades as a tale of filial revenge. There’s blood, sinew, muscles, and entrails, all of it beautifully photographed against the stark majesty of Iceland. Forget fire and ice (though there is that, too); revel instead in arterial spray. What more could you ask for? It’s AD 895, and times are tough.
The hulking Alexander Skarsgård (Passing) stars in the title role, though before we get to him we meet young Amleth as played by Oscar Novak (who also plays young Bruce Wayne in the recent The Batman), son to King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke, The Truth) and Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman, Boy Erased). Mom pampers him, but it’s dad who fascinates, and in a sequence with the court jester (Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project) we see father and boy join souls (thanks to some trusty hallucinogens) on the Norse tree of life, Yggdrasil. Unfortunately, it’s right after that close bonding that Aurvandil is killed by his own brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang, The Square). Vikings may be ruthless conquerors, but sometimes they eat their own.
Fjölnir’s plan of succession includes removing his nephew, but the boy proves cunning and swift and gets away, only to reappear “years later” (as the title card explains) as Skarsgård. He’s now as bloodthirsty as anyone, perhaps more so, and in a graphic scene helps his adopted clan wipe out an entire town. It’s as the victors are enjoying the spoils that he hears once more of Fjölnir, whose stolen kingdom was soon stolen again, only this from Fjölnir. Now residing on Iceland, he has ordered himself some new slaves, to be culled from the freshly defeated souls from the latest attack. Throwing away his clothes, grabbing rags of the newly indentured, and cutting his long locks, Amleth jumps aboard a vessel bound for Fjölnir, a plan slowly hatching in his fevered mind.
That plan includes many a mystic vision, with wizards and witches (one of whom is Björk) appearing at intervals to propel Amleth on his crimson path. Many will die, but not without cost to our hero, who himself is no saint. Far from it. For though he finds redemption of a sort in the arms of fellow slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, Emma.), a smart survivor who becomes his helpmate, he is at heart a killer through and through, not much different than Fjölnir. Nor, as it turns out, from his mother.
There are surprises in store, though anyone familiar with the misadventures of Shakespeare’s Dane will know a little bit of how it all must end. There is no outcome but death when death is all one has mastered. Men are beasts, and they don’t need the wolfskins they occasionally don to prove it. The climactic battle, set against volcanic flow, is a great set piece of out-of-control machismo. Destruction rules, and it is beautiful to behold. Somewhere else, life goes on (courtesy of Olga), but up on center stage stands the apotheosis of savagery, magnificent and terrible. The fire burns painfully, but it’s hard to look away.
– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)