The Northman Review
Robert Eggers takes his knack for immersive storytelling and brings it to a larger, more epic scale with his latest film, The Northman. An unflinching, brutal telling of a revenge quest during the era of vikings, it is The Lighthouse and The Witch director’s most straight-forward, ambitious, and visceral work yet; while also feeling like less than his previous efforts. However, even in its most mundane plot, The Northman is a sight to behold and the work of a director who has cemented his ability to transport audiences into worlds inhabited by the strange and macabre without losing them along the way.
Dedicated to its mythology and lore, Eggers and co-writer Sjón’s screenplay is relatively light on plot but dense in worldbuilding. A young boy, Amleth (played by Oscar Novak, with a timeskip that sees Alexander Skarsgård take the role), witnesses his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) be murdered by his father’s brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang) and mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), subsequently be taken captive by him. Escaping and believed to be dead, Amleth sets forth on a quest to survive and avenge his father’s death when fate determines it to be the right time.
There’s a slavish obsession with fate, destiny, and religion that every character seems to swear by – specifically with men, who barely think for themselves and instead heed the advice of shamans and mystics. It makes for a plot that is surprisingly devoid of much heft since everything just plays out as dictated. Reveals are hardly surprising and are kept too close to the chest than they warrant. It’s a quest for vengeance following a man whose entire life has been overwhelmed by bloodlust and savagery. The plot is straightforward because fate deprives characters of autonomy and they live their lives along a track until they realize that fate can also be altered. Within those fringes though, The Northman comes alive.
Where its narrative lacks impact, its world building and characters pick up the slack. Male characters often resort to violence to solve matters and turn to women for guidance. It is no surprise that every female character in The Northman is more than just someone’s wife or love interest. They’re people who decide their own fate and push against the submissive behavior of the men in their lives governed by others and rarely acting of their own accord. A queen who seemingly finds herself a pawn in another man’s game is more than meets the eye, and the same goes for Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a sorceress and a slave whose path crosses and intertwines with Amleth’s but the two embrace each other’s strengths rather than her merely becoming a love interest for the hate-fuelled brute.
Unsurprisingly, that hate colors the entirety of The Northman. Broken up into chapters, usually spelling out where geographically Amleth currently is, after the inciting incident each chapter gets progressively darker, though in different ways. Sometimes it’s a bit more insidious and others it’s far more bloodsoaked and gory. Each form of violence carries with it a visually distinctive look, occasionally leaning into the heavy metal vibes inherent to Viking bloodshed and other times capturing that dark, brooding atmosphere reminiscent of The Witch and other folk horror.
The aesthetic of The Northman is perhaps its biggest draw: matching scope and mythology with production design and special effects to create moments that are awe-inspiring. Fans of 2021’s The Green Knight will likely find themselves drawn to The Northman for similar reasons, but where the former maintains a specific style, The Northman sometimes shifts a bit, creating some jarring moments where the CG gets a little overwhelming and turns some moments into looking more similar to a Zack Snyder film or graphic novel than an attempt at gritty realism.
The Northman is a herculean effort to bring Viking mythology to a larger audience while still maintaining that distinctively bleak atmosphere that Eggers has forged with his previous films. The cast is enticing enough as they submit themselves completely to a vision that does not compromise itself by catering to a wider demographic. Watching The Northman is akin to reading some of the best fantasy – it rewards you for engaging with its world while not being afraid to completely submerge you in its denseness. The simplistic narrative and unflinching dedication to immersion is why The Northman feels like a complete, singular experience. Eggers isn’t just making movies set in different eras; he’s crafting experiences that feel unfamiliar yet beckon your undivided attention.
While The Northman might be the director’s worst movie, that’s saying very little about the movie and a lot about the impeccable run Eggers has been having as of late. His cast is always impressive in their commitment to going down a very particular and dark road with him and it always pays off. That the film occasionally feels like it’s more committed to immersion than an interesting narrative says everything about how Eggers approaches his films. Stories within the worlds created often befit the setting and characters: The Witch broods in its supernatural horror; The Lighthouse drenches itself in paranoia as its characters completely unravel from isolation; and The Northman buries itself in a revenge-fuelled epic about family in a savage and brutal era.