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‘The Northman’

by Keith Garlington Special to the Democrat -Gazette | April 29, 2022 at 1:31 a.m.

I'll be honest, it didn't take much to sell me on "The Northman." The stunning look of it, the particular period setting, the epic scale, its gritty edge -- all of those things are right up my alley. And then there's the film's director, Robert Eggers. I loved his 2015 debut feature "The Witch." And while I was pretty lukewarm on his 2019 follow-up "The Lighthouse," it was still an audacious bit of maverick filmmaking.

Both of those movies bear many of the same marks of their creator. They're both rooted in Eggers' interests in folk horror and legend. Both show off a near obsessive level of period detail. Both are clearly made by someone fully embracing their creative freedoms. And both feel completely original and unlike anything else that may fall close to their "genres." "The Northman" is what you get when those very distinct creative signatures are used to tell a bigger story with a bigger cast and with a much bigger studio budget (in this case nearly $90 million).

Penned by Eggers and Icelandic screenwriter, poet and novelist Sjon, "The Northman" is a brutal and at times bonkers Viking revenge epic based on the same Scandinavian legend that inspired Shakespeare's "Hamlet." Set in the North Atlantic at the turn of the 10th century, Eggers sits us down in a brawny and violent world, caked in mud and stained with blood. It's a world where human savagery is more commonplace than anything resembling compassion. And where the supernatural and occult co-exist, allowing the director to veer down some dark and twisted paths.

More specifically based on the legend of Amleth, "The Northman" opens up with a table-setting prologue that sets this revenge-soaked tale in motion. In it, 10-year-old Prince Amleth (played by Oscar Novak) enthusiastically greets his father, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) who is returning home from battle. Wounded and weary, Aurvandil decides it's time to begin preparing his son to take his throne. With the help of the wild-eyed shaman Heimir (Willem Dafoe), Aurvandil leads his son through a gonzo ritualistic rite of passage involving blood oaths, trippy visions and flatulence (it's the first of several scenes sure to test mainstream audiences).

The next morning, after a night of unconventional bonding, the course of Amleth's life is changed after he witnesses his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) butcher his father and kidnap his now widowed mother, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman). With Fjolnir's bloodcurdling command "Bring me the boy's head!" still echoing through the thick air, Amlith flees by boat repeating to himself a mantra that will burn into his soul and fuel his hate for the rest of the film, "I will avenge you father. I will save you mother. I will kill you Fjolnir."

The screen fades to black and many years pass. When the image returns we see a much older Amleth (played by a hulking Alexander Skarsgard), now a member of a barbaric Viking clan who ravage the Land of the Rus like a pack of ravenous wolves. Here we get one of the film's more spectacular moments -- an incredible single uninterrupted take of the berserkers raiding, pillaging and slaughtering a Slavic village. The intensely difficult and complex sequence sees Eggers and his go-to DP Jarin Blaschke weaving their camera through the chaos and carnage, sucking us into the sheer savagery of the scene. It's gruesome and unflinching. It's also incredible filmmaking.

Upon getting word that Fjolnir has now settled in Iceland with Gudrun as his captive wife, Amleth stows away on a boat posing as a slave. There he meets a fellow captive who introduces herself as "Olga of the Birch Forest" (Anya Taylor-Joy). She claims to be a sorceress and the two form an immediate bond. "Your strength breaks men's bones," she utters, hinting at an inevitable partnership. "I have the cunning to break their minds." The two arrive at Fjolnir's settlement and are immediately put to work. But rather than killing Fjolnir and his men like a rabid beast, Amleth begins a methodical campaign of physical and psychological terror, brutally picking off his prey one-by-one in the dark of night and sending waves of fear throughout the commune.

While Eggers is clearly the architect and his fingerprints are everywhere, the movie succeeds thanks to a fine collective effort. Blaschke's camera not only captures the ferocity of the action, but also the beautiful yet harsh textures of the Icelandic landscape. There's also the amazing period richness of Craig Lathrop's production design and Linda Muir's costumes. Add to it the pulse-pounding propulsion of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough's score.

Of course you also have the cast ably led by Skarsgard. He's an imposing mix of cold primal rage and quiet intensity. And though aptly (and somewhat comically) described as a "Beast cloaked in man-flesh," Skarsgard also reveals Amleth's pain and vulnerability. Kidman is a blast, Hawke is as wily as ever, and Bang is pure villain material.

Amid the showers of blood, the grime-covered abs and hallucinatory mindtrips lies a fairly basic story. Sure, it features a screaming Valkyrja (Ineta Sliuzaite), a creepy soothsaying seeress (Bjork), and crows working at the behest of Odin himself. Yet the story remains simple. It's the creative juices of Robert Eggers that gives "The Northman" its unique identity, from the impeccable detail and design to the wild flourishes and overindulgences. Now where will such a movie land with audiences? That's the $90 million question.

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