April 26, 2022

Awe-Inspiring “The Northman” is a Viking Epic for the Ages (Review)

I’ve found that films tend to be a better experience when the director actually gets to make the movie they want to make, as opposed to a mess of a feature hastily glued together with reshoots and studio interference. Hollywood politics are tricky, but I think it’s safe to say we would be getting a lot more originality if every director’s innovation was maintained to their preference.

Image courtesy of Focus Features

One director who’s had more success than not with preserving his artistic vision — with the three features he’s produced thus far — is Robert Eggers, writer/director of 2015’s The Witch, 2019’s The Lighthouse, and now The Northman, a Viking-centric story emblematic of Hamlet which allows Eggers to dive into the endlessly deep well of Norse mythology. Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth (the name being one of the more obvious parallels with its Shakespearean influence), a Viking prince whose young life is uprooted when his uncle Fjölnir (Dracula’s Claes Bang) kills his father Aurvandill War-Raven (Dead Poets Society’s Ethan Hawke) and takes the throne, kidnapping Amleth’s mother (Being the Ricardos' Nicole Kidman) in the process. Amleth manages to escape, armed only with a mantra anyone who saw a trailer for this movie in theaters can likely quote verbatim: “I will avenge you, father! I will save you, mother! I will kill you, Fjölnir!”

Two decades later, as Amleth has grown into the much beefier Skarsgård, he finally begins to make progress on his promise. The traditional hero’s journey is punctuated with vivid Green Knight-esque side quests and increasingly violent distractions. Woe befalls anyone who crosses his path, whether they be undead warriors or egotistic cousins, and the adventure only gets better as it nears its end.

The Northman is a beautiful display of technical skill with an appropriately epic scale. Of course, Eggers got his start in production design, and The Northman’s aesthetics make that very clear. Everything about it is dirty, but not necessarily in an unclean way; in fact, everything about this feels brutal and real. The environments feel incredibly naturalistic, the dialogue very rough and harsh — in short, the entire film is Eggers proving that he can make full use of a higher budget.

Image courtesy of Focus Features

Apparently, Eggers wanted The Northman to be a more artsy and slow-paced film, while the studio demanded a more entertaining and accessible story. Divorced, perhaps temporarily, from A24 — likely so he could get a much bigger budget — Eggers’ works toward a balance harder than ever, and because of that I will confidently say that The Northman is his most widely accessible film yet. However, it’s still very much an Eggers film, taking its time to establish character and being completely unafraid to embrace itself in any weirdness it can find.

There’s a wide breadth of Norse spirituality and history in The Northman, down to the fact that Aurvandill and Amleth are pre-existing figures in Scandinavian legend. On his journey, Skarsgård’s Amleth encounters a Seeress (played by Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk), and that becomes his gateway into a whole new world of magic. The Northman is on a new level of mythological storytelling, though, showing us what unlimited imagination can look like when given visuals to match an uncompromised vision.

Returning Lenient Critic readers will know that I love a good film score, and The Northman has the best of the year so far. Composed by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, the soundtrack sticks with Eggers’ principles and uses period-accurate instruments, including the lyre-like tagelharpa and the langspil, an Icelandic drone zither. Once again, the painstaking inventiveness of every aspect of an Eggers film is well worth it, creating an immersive soundscape that only makes the film more memorable.

Image courtesy of Focus Features

2022 is shaping up to be one of the best years for movies in decades. Just look at the last month: Everything Everywhere All At Once, The Northman, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, and Apollo 10½ were all released within the span of 28 days. But in order for films of these caliber to keep being produced, they need to be supported. I beg of you, please see The Northman. In a box office economy dictated by blockbusters and superhero movies, we need excellent one-offs like this stunning Viking revenge tale to keep the spirit of independent film alive.

All that said, I still can’t believe this movie exists. An existentially brutish, yet carefully constructed Viking revenge film is one I never would have thought would be among my favorites of 2022, but I have a newfound confidence that this will stay near the top of my list until the year’s end.

Image courtesy of Focus Features

The Northman is in theaters now.

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