This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
davidehrlich’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
All you really need to know about “The Northman” — a $90 million Viking revenge saga directed by Robert Eggers — is that every single minute of it feels like a $90 million Viking revenge saga directed by Robert Eggers. Both parts of that equation are worth celebrating outside of and in addition to the movie’s other merits.
Even if “The Northman” had been a dreadful bore — and not a primal, sinewy, gnarly-as-fuck 10th century action epic that starts with a hallucinogenic Viking bar mitzvah, features Björk’s first narrative film performance since “Dancer in the Dark,” and ends with two mostly naked men fighting to the death atop an erupting volcano — the simple fact that financiers had the chutzpah to bankroll such a big swing in the face of our blockbuster-or-bust theatrical climate would have felt like a (pyrrhic) victory against the forces of corporate homogenization, no matter who was behind the camera.
That “The Northman” was entrusted to a fetishistically uncompromising young auteur whose previous movie was a single-location sea shanty best-remembered for mermaid vaginas and Willem Dafoe asking, “Why’d you spill your beans!?” makes it even riskier to slot into multiplexes between “Sonic 2” and “MCU 28.” That the finished product viscerally feels like the work of the same artist — despite well-documented attempts to water it down — makes it something of a miracle.
And yet, in an environment so neutered by empty spectacle that critics have been conditioned to do Cirque du Soleil-level backflips for anything even slightly less than obvious — an environment in which mild surprises are treated like government secrets, and the shock of the new is such a rare event that we tend to relay it with the breathlessness of a UFO sighting — it’s important to note that “The Northman” isn’t satisfying just because it’s fun to see Eggers’ fingerprints smudged into every frame of such a big movie. It’s also (and more rewardingly) satisfying because the director’s signature handicraft allows “The Northman” to dismantle its modern context and retell a Viking legend with such raw immediacy that its fjords of blood seem freshly spilled for the first time in 1,000 years.
“The Northman” may fall short of being Eggers’ best film (its terse savagery doesn’t leave room for the emotional layering that allowed “The Witch” to burn so dark), but it’s undoubtedly the peak of his continuing effort to return some integrity to the past; to level the playing field between now and then by shooting period folklore with such historic fidelity that we experience it in the present tense. Just as “The Witch” is so unsettling because it renders sin with a Puritan sense of mortal danger, and “The Lighthouse” so febrile because it embodies the isolation of 19th century life on the fringes of sanity, “The Northman” is so grab-you-by-the-throat intense because it renders a Viking prince’s quest for vengeance as though fate were a force as real as the weather.