The Northman

The Northman ★★★★½

90

Robert Eggers made The Witch with $4 million and The Lighthouse for $11 million. How he secured a $90 million budget for The Northman is beyond me because it almost certainly won’t make that back. But it’s impossible to be anything other than ecstatic about it if you are a enjoyer of well crafted films. The result of that level of funding given to an auteur arthouse director is a truly visceral viking experience, with brutal gore, epic long takes, stunning practical sets, invigorating sound design and tremendous acting talent. Even being a tiny bit thin with its character relationships and fairly predictable, this is a brilliant execution of a well known story and feels like a cinematic event for the theater. It’s easily my favorite film of the year so far and another example of films that should be used to argue against those that say “they don’t make them like they used to.” 

Based on the medieval Scandinavian legend of Amleth (which inspired William Shakepeare’s Prince Hamlet character), The Northman follows Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) on a journey of vengeance two decades after his uncle (Claes Bang) murdered his father (Ethan Hawke) and kidnapped his mother (Nicole Kidman). 

The story begins with Prince Amleth in his youth and we witness a brief moment of his young life before his father is murdered. Oscar Novak is the actor who plays the child aged Amleth and he gives a very genuine performance for a child witnessing murder. Hawke also really leaves a mark in the short moments we have him in, with an excellent accent. The choice to have such little time spent with the son and father duo leaves a little left to be desired on the relationship between the two though. And although it’s one of my very few critiques, it’s unfortunate considering how crucial that initial development is for the motivation during the rest of the plot. 

The plot fast forwards to around two decades later where Amleth, now played by Skarsgård, is a member of a viking gang of marauders. He’s a precise casting choice here with a brutish look (he is the dictionary definition of ripped) and a proficiency in many emotionally demanding moments. By the third act, he conveys a man that’s so defeated yet with a resilience that never allows for a dull moment. In effort to find his father’s killer, he travels with slaves on a ship to get closer to him. He meets a young slave (Anya Taylor-Joy) who he befriends. As always, Taylor-Joy is the perfect casting with her unique look and acting talent for period pieces. Her accent can be a little inconsistent at times here but she carries her weight during the important moments. A couple scenes even feel like an Oscar clip but the same could be said for most of the performers in The Northman. 

Claes Bang plays the uncle character in a surprisingly grounded way that I admired. In the character’s older age, you can tell he’s become more wise with a toned down attitude. Nicole Kidman is not an actress I’m typically a fan of but she’s competent as the queen in this. What the writing (co-written by Eggers and Sjón) goes for with her character by the end is definitely predictable. However, it’s massively elevated by Eggers’ direction. The use of fantasy elements in a story like this were a must to give it an extra layer of depth and it fully succeeds. Without spoiling anything, I’ll say that the use of a fantastical ‘tree’ works for me and the somewhat ambiguous/ interpretable ending was insanely fulfilling. I left feeling more eager to rewatch it in a theater again than any movie I can remember in the past few years. Hence, I suspect it will be equally as impressive on a rewatch. 

Another major reason why it is so engaging is because of every single technical category feeling so accomplished. The budget shows in every sense. Sebastian Gainsborough and Robin Carolan composed what appears to be their first score (!) for The Northman. It’s unrelentingly bold with the scale of epic it reaches. The abundance of loud booming notes in a score is something that can often feel one note but the music here is diverse enough to always keep you on your toes. Then there’s Jarin Blaschke’s rich cinematography, with many more swooping long takes than his work on Eggers’ past two films. Those long takes are immersive enough to where you feel like you’re walking beside the brutish men as they raid the village. And one lengthy shot in particular that leads onto a boat boggles my mind as to how it was achieved. Craig Lathrop’s production design is another standout with three worn down villages built exclusively for this production along with well made viking boats. I’ve heard a few complaints about the visual effects for looking bad. However, I enjoyed the unconventional choices made with the background effects (like the volcano) because I think they will ultimately hold up better than trying to make ultra realistic looking CGI in 2022. By 2042, the stylized visual effects here will likely stand up better than an ultra realistic attempt. 

It’s a visually remarkable film that also has a astoundingly compelling story. The Northman is a revenge narrative about triumphing over your past trauma. It tackles the idea of morality behind revenge as a tool in the first place. At the same time, it introduces an enraged person to a potential love interest, opening up an emotional tool for Amleth. Eggers also dives into the double edged nature of ones family, questioning the concept of trust. But he also includes considerable depth underneath the surface that I’m sure I’ll discover even more of on a rewatch. On an initial viewing, I felt a lot of effort was put into Amleth’s self discovery. At first, it may only appear as a brutal revenge plot. But you witness him discover what his life is meant to be (now that he can’t be king) as he meets new people who encourage ideas other than pure revenge. We often feel destined for one specific path. But we inevitably find ourselves disconnecting from that one path as our life goes on. By the intensely rewarding conclusion of The Northman, Amleth’s revenge trek has reformed into one of finding eternal peace for his family. I interpreted it as a criticism on war and violence in general and the realities of how these atrocities effect the families and loved ones of those involved. References to iconic films notorious for brutality (Come and See for example) reaffirm this take

I believe that (for lack of a better phrase) “film bros” fail to acknowledge a lot of the flaws in their favorites, like “Joker”, “The Dark Knight” and “Fight Club”, by calling them perfect masterpieces. They are all excellent films but I have a hard time understanding how they are touted as flawless achievements. And, as someone who also isn’t typically huge on this genre of film (10th century epic), The Northman completely astonishes me in every way and will be my definitive “film bro” movie that I obsess over. In saying that, I mean that it is by no means perfect. But it’s a feature that I can ignore almost every imperfection due to how incredibly epic it is. Robert Eggers has fully cemented himself in as one of the most capable filmmakers working today. 

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