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The Northman review: Viking mayhem for adolescents of all ages

The Northman, a bodaciously gory new Viking revenge odyssey from director Robert Eggers, charges early into an elaborate long take of carnage and chaos, the kind where the camera just keeps running as all hell breaks loose. Our eponymous anti-hero, a ripped, blood-streaked Nordic he-man played by Alexander Skarsgård, wanders a conquered village, admiring the spoils of his invasion. The air is thick with smoke and screams, and little moments of death and suffering keep passing in the background of the frame, filling every corner of this showboat panorama with grisly detail.

We’re witnessing a nightmare from the annals: The horrors of 10th-century pillaging rendered pungently vivid. Yet the way Eggers stages the sequence as an unbroken survey, à la similarly muscular cut-free set-pieces in films like The Revenant and Atonement and 1917, betrays more gleeful fascination — more childlike wonder, even — than disgust. It’s hellish history as a badass ride. This writer couldn’t help but think of Lisa Simpson, daydreaming about a virtual tour led by Genghis Khan.

It’s no great insult to suggest that The Northman, for all its impeccable craft and diligent verisimilitude, possesses an intrinsically adolescent appeal. This is teenager cinema par excellence, an opera of old-world mayhem fit for Beavis and Butthead. Eggers is drawing on The Icelandic Sagas, milestones of ancient Scandinavian storytelling, but in doing so, he’s also evoking a whole library of violent pulp entertainment distantly indebted to them: Comic books of barbarian combat, baroque fantasy novels of magic and murder, hack and slash dark-age video games. Certainly, few filmmakers have ever come closer to approximating the horns-up sensibility of heavy metal; were someone to adapt both the album art and lyrics of Swedish Viking-metal titans Amon Amarth for the screen, the results would surely resemble Eggers’ epic.

Alexander Skarsgård screams for battle In The Northmen.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The actual source of inspiration is an iconic legend, shaped into movie form with help from the Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón (an occasional creative collaborator to Björk, who makes a memorable cameo here). A doomy prologue introduces Amleth, the boy destined to be hardened into a wrathful man with a “heart of cold iron.” His formative trauma is the murder of his magnificently bearded father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke, in mortal combat with a tricky accent), ruler of the fictional island of Hrafnsey in AD 895. The culprit: Aurvandill’s brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang of The Square), thirsty for both the crown and the boy’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).

Narrowly escaping his usurping uncle by boat, little Amleth grows into a strapping warrior prince, devoid of mercy or any motivation deeper than a dully throbbing desire for vengeance. His ancient grudge is reignited when he receives word of Fjölnir’s own pilgrimage, of how he lost his stolen kingdom and was driven to a stretch of hopeless Icelandic soil. There, the traitor has started a new life, and a new family, with the former queen — one of a few discoveries Skarsgård’s Viking marauder makes upon arriving at the far-flung farm in chains, having deliberately fallen into the clutches of slavers to get close to his mark. If this bare-bones plot seems to recall the thrust of Hamlet, that’s no coincidence: The story of Amleth is considered a likely template for the Bard’s revered tragedy.

Eggers’ previous movies, The Witch and The Lighthouse, were claustrophobically small affairs — ominous New England folktales that stranded tiny casts within isolated single settings, abandoning them to paranoia, unholy terrors of the mind and body, and ravenous birds. (Danger comes feathered in all of his films.) Perhaps the cabin fever that haunted these characters got to their creator, too. In the scope of timeline, geography, and budget, The Northman represents a frost-giant-sized step forward for Eggers. Somehow, he has secured $90 million to go hunting once more for dread in the pages of history. Will the man only rest once he’s explored every godforsaken, bygone era of cruelty and superstition?

Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy ride across Iceland in The Northmen.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The Northman revels in all the filthy spectacle money can buy; every unlikely dollar invested has been splurged on creaky ships approaching ashen shores, collisions of beast-like men, and archaic domiciles engulfed in mighty flames. But Eggers hasn’t abandoned the pet obsessions of his indie work. Again, he’s immersed himself in period research, going nitty-gritty on the look, dress, customs, and vernacular of the terrifying past. Those who enjoyed Willem Dafoe’s crassly eloquent seadog monologues in The Lighthouse will find more purple speechifying where that came from — some of it courtesy, in fact, of a brief court-jester supporting performance by the same game actor.

And once more, the grubby environmental realism is offset with glowing supernatural visions, including a literal family tree (the fruit it bears is a lineage of kings), dreams of valkyries battle-crying en route to skyward Valhalla, and an undead swordsman who marks The Northman as a kindred spirit in artisanal mythmaking to last summer’s The Green Knight. A less expected comparison the director might refute: The portentously macho big-canvas action of Zack Snyder. Jason Momoa’s fanbase of fisherfolk serenaders would fit in well here, and it’s easy to imagine Skarsgård among the 300 of 300.

The movie’s a feast for the eyes, no doubt — an IMAX-worthy Grand Guignol opus bathed in shades of inferno orange, moonlight blue, and intestinal red. It’s less satisfying as drama, revenge-, psycho-, or otherwise. Skarsgård looks great drenched in all manner of viscera, but he’s playing a man so hollowed out by a lifetime of Viking bloodlust that he’s become as rigid as an action figure. A little of the soulful sorrow Russell Crowe brought to the like-minded Gladiator would have helped, especially in regards to a malnourished romantic subplot featuring a fellow steely slave played by Eggers’ Witch star Anya Taylor-Joy.

Masked Vikings patrol the woods in The Northmen.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Then again, Amleth’s unwavering, consuming brutishness might be the closest The Northman has to a point beyond shock and awe. Just as The Lighthouse poked deranged fun at anxious masculinity, Eggers’ apocalyptic latest finds folly in a legacy of machismo, passed down from father to son for generations. It’s an idea best expressed through the surprises nestled into later stretches of the plot, including one big subversion of the straightforward righteousness of our hero’s journey. (Shrewdly, this turn rests on a dynamite scene with Kidman, who seems faintly wasted in a thankless role right up until the moment that she sends the film careening off in a darkly, juicily perverse new direction.)

What Eggers has made, with much intelligence, improbably bottomless resources, and an almost touchingly geeky obsession with historical accuracy (marvel at the detours into funeral rites and manhood trials and musical festivities), is a single-minded pageant of excess. The unyielding brutality is the movie’s limitation — it knows only how to bludgeon, however artfully — but also what will endear it to pubescent hellraisers of all ages. That, and a proudly juvenile sense of humor that pokes through the poker-faced savagery from time to time, provides another link of plain authorship to Eggers’ last movie. If there’s anything the proverbial 12-year-old moviegoer loves more than severed heads and zombie knights, it’s a good fart joke.

The Northman opens in select theaters Friday, April 22. For more reviews and writing by A.A. Dowd, visit his Authory page.

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A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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