In The Northman, Robert Eggers’ intense, often visionary Viking epic, the characters yell — a lot. Actually, “yelling” doesn’t come close to describing the wrenching sound that emanates from the men in this movie. Horrible wails of anguish, booming screams that seem ready to rip open their insides, shouting that could shake the nearby mountains — it’s hard to imagine any Hollywood film this year that will be as primal, even feral, as this one.
Eggars’ superb previous two movies — the 17th-century horror flick The Witch, and the trippy 19th-century psychological thriller The Lighthouse — dove deep into period detail, drawing on bygone dialects and arcane historical accuracy to tell stories that felt like cursed time capsules dug up and then unleashed upon the modern world. With The Northman, which opens April 22nd, the acclaimed director takes us to the 10th century, mixing the realistic and the fantastical, combining the thrilling and the delightfully overwrought. Eggers has said he wanted “to try and make the Viking movie. The definitive Viking movie.” He has certainly made the most Viking movie ever.
From its striking opening image — an erupting volcano, the sky charcoal gray, an ominous voice rumbling on the soundtrack — The Northman makes it plain that it is Not Messing Around. Divided into chapters, the film takes us into the world of Amleth (Oscar Novak), a young prince whose father and mother, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) and Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), rule a flourishing kingdom. Aurvandil is a noble warrior, but he knows that he must prepare his boy to take the throne, unaware that treachery is just around the corner. Enter Aurvandil’s scheming brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), whose men murder the king. In short order, Fjölnir seizes the crown (and Aurvandil’s bride Gudrún) as his own, ordering that Amleth be hunted down and killed as well. But the young man escapes, swearing vengeance and promising one day to rescue his poor mother.
It’s a stunning opening, establishing Eggers’ continued fascination with mythic pasts. There’s a coarse beauty to the visuals, a feeling that every frame has been soaked in mud and blood, and the characters speak in Old Icelandic — whether or not you follow every exchange is of no concern to Eggers or his characters. Eggers’ obsessive studiousness regarding his forgotten worlds has always been utterly enthralling and also enjoyably nerdy — the work of a straight-A student who also wants to make sure he gets all the extra credit points, too.
Consequently, as enveloping as The Northman’s stern brutality is, there’s also something a touch ridiculous about this tale of savage warriors on grim quests. The movie is so solemn that it can almost be funny at times, Eggers laboring so magnificently to create a gritty, believable Viking drama that he risks obscuring about how much fun he’s clearly having. But just when you think The Northman is all a bit overblown, he knocks you sideways with another extraordinarily staged sequence. Eggers may take all this a tad too seriously, but like the onscreen Vikings pillaging and ransacking with utter ferocity, The Northman destroys everything in its path, including whatever objections you might have.
After witnessing Amleth’s harrowing escape, we cut to about 20 years later. The young prince is now a man (Alexander Skarsgård), a mighty Viking who’s an expert with a sword, slaying his enemies while letting out an ear-splitting bellow. Determined to uphold his pledge from childhood, Amleth disguises himself as a slave so he can infiltrate Uncle Fjölnir’s meager farm. (As we will learn, the kingdom that Fjölnir claimed didn’t last.) When Amleth arrives, he’s put to work, Fjölnir not recognizing his nephew — and neither does Gudrún. And so Amleth waits for the right moment to hit back at his uncle, befriending a bewitching fellow slave, Olga (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy), who offers her help.
The Norse legends that Eggers and co-writer Sjón plunder for inspiration predate Hamlet, although for most audiences that will be the most obvious touchstone — although there’s also a little Gladiator to this slow-burn revenge saga as well. On its surface, The Northman’s narrative is fairly familiar, which is why Eggers’ emphasis on period specifics — including that era’s belief in the supernatural — is so crucial. We recognize the contours of Amleth’s quest, but it’s all the little details that make the film absorbing. Within such a framework, the occasional digressions into mysticism and witchcraft don’t actually play like digressions — the surreal and the earthy coexist in The Northman, creating an enrapturing middle ground between the physical and fantasy realms.
Much like last year’s comparably otherworldly The Green Knight, The Northman gives the past a thrilling presentness. In the midst of battle, Eggers’ camera roams across the landscape, immersing us in the carnage, making us feel the terror and exhilariation of a violent time. And as a result, the depictions of misogyny and barbarism are all the more gripping. Eggers doesn’t glorify these Vikings’ primitive mindset or their bloodlust, and yet it’s hard to deny The Northman’s bracing lizard-brain purity. The film is a complex, gorgeously crafted study of a cripplingly patriarchal, superstitious society — and if you want to see parallels between then and now, Eggers won’t dissuade you. But also, it’s a rousing guy movie about a buff, righteous dude who’s gonna kill his no-good uncle.
That balance of spectacle and nuance may throw viewers who just want to see a lot of swordplay mixed with gnarly decapitations. But it’s a testament to Eggers’ growing skill as a filmmaker that he doesn’t eschew any of this genre’s visceral sensation while ensuring the story’s historical accuracy. The characters’ disturbingly feral screams speak to The Northman’s unglamorous depiction of an uncivilized age, not prompting the audience to romanticize a time when men were men but, instead, asking us to see our species in its untamed form. You’ll both recoil and be riveted by the brute-force simplicity of Amleth’s plan, with its echoes of so many earlier revenge tales. I wouldn’t say Skarsgård is particularly subtle in the role, but subtlety isn’t required — as Amleth, he seems carved out of stone, a perfect weapon of destruction who has steeled himself for this moment. He’s as obvious and inevitable as an oncoming storm, and just as likely to wreak havoc.
The Northman throws in twists and turns, trying to subvert the traditional hero’s journey in much the same way that The Green Knight did. At their core, both of these utterly arresting films evoke the folkloric to lay bare men’s essential nature, examining how ancient beliefs about bravery and nobility are as fabricated as the magical spirits who populate these stories. But Eggers isn’t above the inherent pleasures of Viking movies, although his graphic action scenes have a bone-crushing intimacy that never lets us forget how intense and ugly it is to kill another person at close range. The Northman is hardly the first revenge film to critique our desire for vengeance, but by capturing the genre’s grisly allure, Eggers has given us a movie for the gut and the brain.
And Skarsgård embodies that duality. He possesses a godlike form — he would have made a fine Thor — but as an actor, he’s often conveyed a soulfulness beneath his characters’ rough exterior. Ultimately, Amleth doesn’t necessarily see the futility of his quest, but he nonetheless changes along the way — or, at least, he tries. The Northman takes us back to an irretrievable past, but it has no illusions about its heroes and villains. All they know is how to kill and to conquer. Robert Eggers shows us what’s so stirring about such a simple worldview — and also so pointless.