The Northman

The Northman ★★★★★

"You must choose between kindness for your kin, and hatred for your enemies."

In his third feature film, Robert Eggers upholds his tradition of exploring historical settings in all their ritualistic details and mythological folklore glory. As compelling a voice as anyone might have hoped for when it comes to those of us who longed for a viking-era historical epic: uniting the mystery and symbolism of his indie/art-house roots from The Witch and The Lighthouse with the ambitions of a modern big-budget blockbuster, and if more studio movies were as ambitious and well-crafted as this one, the overall quality of cinematic output would be in a much better place.

The Northman is fundamentally built around a simple revenge story. The stakes are no higher than avenging and taking back what was taken away, but sometimes it's comparatively small stakes like those that make a film even more compelling ("comparatively small" in the sense that most Hollywood blockbusters are built around a central conflict that threatens to cause the destruction of the world as we know it). Protagonists fighting for a personal agenda is significantly more interesting than the hundredth battle against the end of the world, and so, The Northman searches for humanity and justice in an ugly world full of angry, self-concerned characters. The ride is cover-your-eyes violent and relentlessly brutal, building towards a towering crescendo that unites all the mud and snow and fire from a hellish landscape.

At its core lies the question of whether to focus your energy on loving your friends, or hating your enemies. The Northman proposes that revenge fuels an interminable cycle of hatred and destruction; but also that we humans might ultimately be too susceptible to the prospect of short-term satisfaction to the overriding repercussions. Some arguments imply that The Northman does not have much more to say below a superficial surface level, but for me it worked phenomenally despite that flaw.

Giving the full five-star rating to The Northman on a first-time watch might be slightly overrating it, but I have not felt so satisfied with any cinema visit since pre-pandemic times. It's a bloody, violent epic with weirdness written all over it, so much that it's almost guaranteed it doesn't work for everyone; but I would lie if I said it wasn't everything I wanted it to be.

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