The Northman

The Northman ★★★★½

The most metal thing Robert Eggers has ever made. A savage, growling, breathlessly violent epic that bristles with mood and myth-making badassery. Every detail of its presentation works like an incantation, chanting a spell that will drive us deeper into its hallucinogenic power. As father and son perform the subterranean kingmaking ritual, the legendary quality of Viking culture is conjured up through the magical, brutally-realistic, and weirdly-supernatural mise-en-scène. 

This is a time and place when mythical forces were as real as bodies hanging from a tree, a shadow-shrouded past that is able to summon otherworldly sights and somehow retain one foot in reality. When the boy is propelled into manhood at the sight of his father’s vulgar death, a deep guttural howl lowers us into a myth as old as the gods, slaughtering its way into the ominous moonlight to avenge what has been lost. The more he repeats the revenge-seeking words, the more he moves in a straight, relentless line like a gravitational force that must inexorably counterblow. The overwhelming sense of fate to reclaim what’s been taken from him means that scenes will repeat and play out like shamanistic opera, driving him deeper into the terrible forces of endless hate.

Driven less by plot and more by inscrutable mood, Eggers’ obsessive attention to period detail and historical accuracy intensifies what feels like a rigorously-researched Icelandic poem, something that uses heightened cinematic language and rhythm to express an intensely Shakespearean conflict of the soul. The story is deceptively simple, but it only appears that way because of how seamless its ceremonial and expressionistic elements bleed together. Pagan and fantastical worlds are caught in theatrical opposition, which means we get all kinds of awesomely weird shit like magical swords, ghostly sorcerers, runic chapter titles, a nude battle sequence within a volcanic crater, and a riders-in-the-sky ascension to spiritual paradise. All of this coexists, mind you, in a world that is horribly real and slathered in sweat, mud, blood, and gore. Eggers refuses to modernize this story and seems to believe that the ontological layers of the past are far more interesting than our conception of the world today.

“It’s this uncritical immersion in a totally different mentality that sets The Northman apart,” says writer Mark Asch. The film just lets us watch a series of eerie rites and rituals that are completely alien to us at a hands-off distance, which in turn shapes a mood that is internal and chaotic in all the best ways. The story is familiar at its bloodletting core, but the intense psychological warfare between our hero and his enemies allows for suspense to stretch out in such engrossing ways. That and the worldbuilding is insane and the mythology is simply fantastic. Not quite the confounding masterpiece as its cousin, THE GREEN KNIGHT, but this gloriously barbaric fever dream is one that has reverberated deep into my bones. Eggers best. 🤘

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