The Northman

The Northman ★★★★

Expectations may need to be managed when going into Robert Eggers's latest foray into period-detailed history tinged with surrealism. Tragic as that may sound—a tragedy potentially befitting such a narrative that itself laid the groundwork for Shakespeare's "Hamlet"—it's only natural that the transition of a director who has thrived in the independent horror market into big-budget historical epics akin to a much more barbaric Ridley Scott should lead to somewhat diminishing returns. That's not to say that such sprawling explorations of the viking era should necessitate a worse or "less artistically inclined" outcome, but it goes without saying that whatever studios felt bold (or coked-out) enough to hand the director of The Witch and The Lighthouse somewhere between 75 and 90 million dollars would eventually get cold feet and jump into the editing bay to compromise such an inevitably audacious and potentially alienating vision. It's a thrill, then, to say that, for all its faults that averted his two rounds with A24, The Northman still feels wholeheartedly like a Robert Eggers film.

That The Northman manages to retain enough of its director's ravenous hunger for historical accuracy and brutality on such a massive scale is nearly appealing enough to justify the film's existence in and of itself. But beyond the rocky shores of tongue-twisting dialogue and hypnagogic sequences that would make give Jodorowsky a hard-on, The Northman's historically grounded Scandinavian setting is, simply put, the perfect playing ground for so much absurdly bloody fun! Staggering Björk-led vision quests and Willem Dafoe-induced rites of passage alongside a (relatively) straight-laced revenge plot, Eggers succeeds in crafting such an idiosyncratic blockbuster reaching across several bases; not one that has a bit of appeal for everyone, but one that has a plenty of appeal for those who like everything.

In assembling such a stylistically hefty piece—one that, just like its plot, requires more detail than would initially appear—one drawback of Eggers's efforts is that the balance of form doesn't translate into a perfect balance of pace. The Northman tends to move along like its titular lead, played by a hulking Alexander Skarsgård; it's massive, vigorous and because it's doing a lot, it appears as though it's moving quickly, when in actuality it's in no hurry to get from point A to point B. And on the surface, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. The series of side quests are in themselves stimulating and invigorating, and the film's willingness to totally commit to their medieval oddness is indeed a large part of what gives The Northman its distinct identity within the modern landscape of generic crowd-pleasers.

But when we get to the more straightforward revenge plot that ties these trippier sequences together, we find that there may not be as much investment as there could have been given both the underdevelopment of the titular character and the equal underdevelopment of the very catalyst for his revenge; his love (or blind admiration) for his father. I can't imagine having to choose which of the spiked mead-inspired trips Eggers may have had to cut in order to develop The Northman's father-son dynamic, but the rushed feeling of a scene in which Ethan Hawke screeches out his need to be avenged should anything happen to him, only for something to happen to him less than five minutes later, may not be precisely the sort of rush Eggers hopes (and largely succeeds) to achieve throughout the rest of the film.

Perhaps the biggest draw of The Northman is the who's-who of wild-eyed performers willing to throw their whole bodies and questionable accents into these roles. Much like the most recent effort of another ambitious, artistically driven big-budget filmmaker—Denis Villeneuve's Dune—Eggers mainly relies on the novelty and intrigue of these actors merely being in a(nother) Robert Eggers film. And while yes, that means that performers like Willem Dafoe and my future ex-wife Anya Taylor-Joy don't come through with the usual singular fire that burns through everything else around them, at the end of the day, their (and everyone else's) energetic and committed efforts to such a tale driven by myth and barbarity makes every casting choice worthwhile, if in no major way a standout.

Even if The Northman somewhat pales in comparison to the two masterpieces that Robert Eggers has already gifted us, its simultaneous dedication to its singularity and refusal to be relegated entirely to that novelty makes for a worthwhile expansion of both Eggers's filmography and an increasingly comatose Hollywood studio landscape. The Northman is proof that, even if handing budding auteurs a burning bag full of cash may very well be a volatile recipe for crackling hubris, with every project these days either costing $2 million or $200 million to produce, the occasional indulgent sweet spot into moderately big-budget playtime couldn't hurt.

2022 Ranked.

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