The Northman

The Northman ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

“This misdeed will haunt your waking nights, until a fiery vengeance gorges upon your death.”
My 1000th LB review! I’m damn happy it’s for this one. Fair warning, this will be very long and train-of-thoughty. Anyways, The Northman is favorite Eggers. I know it’s in vogue to say that it’s good but sacrifices that unnamed special Eggers touch at points for accessibility and because of studio involvement. I didn’t feel that way at all.  I loved it. Absolutely incredible. It was tastefully obscure and “other”, but not over the top. The best way I can describe it is it makes you look at the world the same way a Dark Age person would in the sense that things were bleak, gritty and real, but there was a subtle “magic” at the foundation of everything. 
One complaint I’ve been seeing is that “they” made the plot too derivative or too much of a typical revenge saga. I think they assume Eggers and Sjon came up with the narrative themselves. The Northman is based on The Legend of Amleth, an ancient Viking legend that inspired Shakespeare's Hamlet, not the other way around. So it was ol Willie Shake who saw Amleth, and moved the H to the front. If you take that context of Eggers adapting one of the oldest known revenge tales in history, then The Northman actually turns into a rather unorthodox subversion of a long-lived, time honored myth.
It reminds me of another favorite, The Green Knight, in that way. There, David Lowery deconstructed the hero’s journey. Here, Eggers does something similar in terms of vengeance quests with the same level of moral complexity. Like for example, in that scene where Amleth kills his own mother, it is depicted as if she is the evil one, and he accidentally murders her in self defense on the journey to avenge his father. But are we sure? For one his mother has every right to try to kill him. She is literally defending her only living child that was conceived willingly after promising a husband she loves that she would do so. She is fulfilling her duty as a mother and a wife. 
Meanwhile, Amleth is the child conceived out of rape by a man who she hated so much she plotted his death. This is after he kills her other son in cold blood, while he is sleeping (no Valhalla for you!) and steals his heart from his corpse. I have no idea what that means in Norse mythology, but it can’t be good. Keep in mind this is after she gives him the choice to leave and escape! He is also an extremely skilled fighter, are you telling me he couldn’t disarm a woman twice his age or avoid stabbing her in the heart if he really wanted to? This is a guy who took out an entire crew of guys with a hatchet! He clearly has anger issues, and we see it pop up again and again and even here. Also, he’s in her room, so it is just as likely he is there to wipe her and her son out as well.
Yet we are blinded to these facts because we are seeing it from Amleth’s point of view. We, as an audience, are just as blind as he is! It seems as if he is justified, when clearly he is not, she has a perfectly good reason for wanting to kill him. His uncle is a slaver, but so is his father. I guess this is supposed to make us question the fate elements of the movie and whether Amleth is truly justified by fate, and if he is, whether we should be glad that fate ends up the way it is. So to say this is a simple story? I don’t understand how people can say that.  
Another complaint I’ve seen was that the violence was brutal but just not brutal enough, or that Eggers sacrifices gore or cuts away from deaths in the name of accessibility, and again, I simply don’t see it. This is a film with multiple obviously shown beheadings, a sword thrust through a person’s nose, disembowelments, throat slitting, and human sacrifice. Fights are depicted with extended tracking shots for clarity. There is literally a sequence showing a dozen naked dead enemy soldiers, dicks and all, nailed to the wall of a building in the shape of a horse, but I digress. The last fight scene is something I'll remember seeing for years and years. 
But while the combat was visceral and impactful, My favorite scenes were the supernatural sequences hands down. The combat was excellent and gorgeous but seeing Odin and his two ravens standing over Amleth gave me so much fucking chills. And the Valkyrie riding to the Milky Way explains itself. I continue to admire Eggers' attention to cultural details in his films. The prayers, chants, war cries, and rituals really immersed me into this film. Also, with Dune and The Northman I think I'm going to be obsessed with throat singing. No film chapter title will ever go as hard as THE NIGHT BLADE FEEDS.
Narratively, an aspect I especially loved was how much planting to payoff there was, even with somewhat tiny details. A few I recall clearly were how one of Queen Gudrun’s first lines, to her son, was essentially “don’t ever come into my room unannounced.” It’s immediately a bit jarring, and in the moment I chalked it up to possibly being something cultural, but, no, it’s because she’s got some secrets. There’s Heimir’s first line, where he essentially calls her a whore and Fjolnir flies into a rage (and then later does all the things he says Aurvandill should do to Heimir for his “joke”). And, immediately after the berserker fight, you can see Olga in the background (recognizable by her hair), offering bread to the invaders, dropping it, and then attacking them with a knife (though she’s thwarted). She later uses the same bread dropping trick to secretly talk with Amleth, and it sets her up before we even meet her as determined and pretty clever. 
If I’m being honest, the only thing keeping this from a straight 5/5 was the criminally brief screentime—essentially cameos—for Defoe and Bjork and some pacing dips in the middle. Every actor is at the top of their game. The way Skarsgrard just channels this insanely otherwordly primal rage and is roaring as the camera zooms in on him. Kidman was given one big scene and fuck did she bring it, though it was bizarre seeing her whipping fresh blood at her husband and son an hour after seeing her talking about how great AMC theaters are.  ATJ is as ethereally captivating as ever and Hawke exudes waves of gravitas in his brief turn, but I’d have to say Claes Bang steals the show here as one of the most human “villains” I’ve seen recently. 
The biggest take away I've had so far was....questioning my own character. I feel like a lot of manly movies aim to make you feel like badass. This just left me in awe, and shook my confidence, double checking my life the next day. It's given me a lot to think about, which is uncomfortable at times. That's kind of interesting to me. Where a lot of films try to put you in the shoes of the hero, this one kind of leaves you looking up in awe. When the berserkers torched the barn with all the villagers inside, and they cut to Amleth walking in the dark....I was just so somber and sad. The writing, subtext, cinematography, score, atmosphere, acting, and sound design all combine to create a thrilling experience that made me want to hug my family.

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