Clayton Shank’s review published on Letterboxd:
Though flaunting the requisite amount of atmosphere and "you are there" world building that comes standard with every Robert Eggers film, I found The Northman an oddly conventional and straight-forward epic next to his track record. It goes without saying we need a hundred more films like this every year from filmmakers taking big, adult-only swings, but walking out I can't help but feel The Northman was just good enough to make you realize it wasn't great. With one clear exception in the third act, which is in the film's favor and neatly complicates the moral arc for the remainder of the runtime, every plot development passes by with a familiar nod as opposed to something that generates increased interest, and the film pretty much ends the way you think it will. Some scattered critiques, in no particular order of egregiousness:
- Amleth's relationship with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a disappointment, as the final fork in the road between them is essentially the only reason Olga's presence bears any weight on the film at large.
- Skarsgård is too jacked. His ridiculous size seems manicured and intentionally sculpted, rather than a byproduct of his character's lifestyle.
- Amleth coming face to face with the object of his revenge so early in the film is a point of ambivalence, which simultaneously sucks out some of the mounting drama while re-channeling it, quasi-effectively, to a "death by a thousand cuts" scenario that does have a measure of sicko fun in bursts.
- Kidman's fame is a problem and makes her feel apocryphal to the setting. Films like this sacrifice naturalism for box office viability with these casting decisions. Did this film need to be 90 million dollars? Aside from not seeing much of it on screen, that kind of budget necessitates big-named talent to sell it, and therefore ultimately detracts from it. And why can't she move portions of her face?! She looks ghoulish in unsympathetic lighting.
- The final confrontation is bonkers. I'm not sure if it works entirely, but it is a bit odd we don't get much, ahem, "swinging" visuals. If you're going this route, and by all means do it, let's go full Eastern Promises and not get skittish.
- Aside from his stature and efficiency as a death-dealer, Amleth is just not very interesting. He is defined almost exclusively by his task and by his trauma. The few laconic grumblings we do get from him do little to add a human face to the journey.
All that by the wayside, there is a good amount to get absorbed in here. The "baptism" in the first act, for want of a better word, is vintage Eggers - its quick cutting and hallucinogenic treatment of brazen, animalistic manhood truly transporting. It helps when you have the jack-o-lantern grin of a shamanistic Willem Dafoe character lighting the way. The Northman, as a whole, would have benefited from leaning more into these kinds of psilocybin trips. As previously alluded, there is a right turn to the audience's preconceptions about the nobility of specific characters, and does dip Amleth's journey into a deep, sidewinding grey that strips away contextual righteousness in favor of the cold, naked thrust of steel. Björk's brief appearance as a fortune-telling witch, of sorts, is, well, appropriately Björk. What's the over-under on Björk telling the costume designer "no worries", and taking that outfit clean out of her own wardrobe? And lest I forget, as is now clear in his last two films, Robert Eggers is not above a good fart. Dare I say the flatulent may be the Bruce Campbell to his Sam Raimi, and I look forward to sniffing out its wafting, pretense-killing aromas in all future films.