The Northman

The Northman ★★★★½

"Hear me Odin, All-Father of the gods. Summon the shadows of ages past, when the thread-spinning Norns ruled the Fates of man. Hear of a prince’s vengeance quenched at the fiery gates of Hel. A prince destined for Valholl. Hear me."

One of the great pleasures—and maybe the true achievement—of any Robert Eggers film is their ability to successfully perform on multiple levels, each of which can be enjoyed within their individual layers or all together across the totality of the writer-director’s vision. They’re feats of versatility. His productions exist at once as thematically rich dramas, feverish flashes of entertainment, and obsessive time capsules curated with a painstaking degree of historicity and cinematic language.

The Northman is no different. Even in spite of the more orthodox narrative approach (at least when compared to The VVitch and The Lighthouse), it remains an enormous, impeccably detailed endeavor, one as varied and consuming as the filmmaker’s previous projects with that aforementioned versatility still ever-present. This is a bone-crushing saga of fate and carnage where reality and myth bear little difference. The merits of the production value alone are enough to justify the highest praise, every set, location, prop, and garment delivered with the utmost attention to accuracy, and thus immersion. But take into account the inspired choices Eggers and co-screenwriter Sjón have brought to this age-old tale of revenge—many of them artful twists on the formula which serve to both strengthen and recontextualize the characterization—and you discover a greatly intimate portrait that anchors meaning behind the ravenous double-edged blade of vengeance.

At least for me, it speaks volumes to Eggers’ talent that The Northman is potentially my least favorite of his canon, yet the work is still utterly masterful. As far as I’m concerned, increasingly rare are the filmmakers reaching the sheer cinematic peaks he is, let alone consistently from production to production. His latest is an epic to be remembered, a brilliant piece of historical bloodshed bolstered by an immensely sturdy thematic and creative foundation. This is Shakespeare meets Conan the Barbarian (the opening narration had me grinning) by way of the Russian masters, taken in all of the lyricism, significance, and violence implied by that combination. No scene isn’t stunning in some regard, each composition a canvas for top-tier performances surrounded by spectacular technical elements. The finale in particular is a sequence of savage fulfillment heightened by the thunderous orchestrations of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, a set piece so unabashedly staggering that it practically reaches the magnitude of Wagner.

"I will avenge you. I will honor our blood. I will cut the thread of Fate."

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