The Northman

The Northman ★★★★

After years of letting loincloths do most of the work, someone finally figured out what to do with the specimen that is Alexander Skarsgård. Hey! Why don't we let the guy who looks like a viking play a friggin' viking already? I could understand the resistance. Films portraying the brutality of the Norse world are often unpleasant slogs. Sure, people occasionally get their eyes gouged out and their heads lobbed off, but not in a fun way. Then there's the issue of the unavoidable sexual violence. It's the elephant in the room people would rather not acknowledge, and a would be comedy like Terry Jones' "Erik the Viking" even once tried to get around the issue by literally turning it into a joke. Robert Egger's film acknowledges the presence of every devastating aspect to this barbaric time and place, but doesn't dwell too much on the violence of any kind, even as it's ever present. He doesn't portray savage acts as right or wrong, but merely as they were, and he doesn't paint any one of his characters as heroic or villainous, even as every last one of them is guilty of something horrid by the end of the film. You can't trust any of the character archetypes that we've become accustomed to.

I've been rather awe-struck by Eggers' previous films thus far, fully aware of the man's talent but wondering if it had quite been properly channeled yet. "The Witch" was an admirable but somewhat pointless attempt to do supernatural horror in the classic puritanical setting, and "The Lighthouse" shimmered with the kind of silver glow that films haven't seen since the 1930's, but was perhaps a bit wasted on a silly tale of two farting drunks determined to make the other turn as mad as he already was. THE NORTHMAN is the first of his films that feels complete and of a purpose. Eggers wisely uses the backdrop as a simple story of revenge, one familiar to anyone who is at all versed in Shakespeare or films about talking lions. I appreciate that this is far less of a retelling of "Hamlet" but more a broadly drawn fable that one could completely understand how retellings over centuries could lead to the inspiration for the tragedy of the Danish Prince.

This is, after all, not meant to be taken literally. This isn't ever trying to show us a realistic portrayal of viking life was, much like Nicolas Winding Refn attempted with the well intentioned snooze of "Valhalla Rising." This is definitely a "print the legend" story, combining the harshness of reality with the fantasy of myth. I don't think that any of the magic is actually supposed to be accepted as real in this film, but it represents the beliefs of the characters, who are living such desolate lives that they can only hope for some comparative paradise awaiting them after death. The film is an absolute spectacle to behold. We don't make a lot of these period epics practically anymore, because they're very expensive and rarely turn a profit. We've had some pretty noble attempts of late with "The Green Knight" and "The Last Duel," but Eggers outdoes both of those in presentation. The Icelandic settings feel like a combination of untouched lands and the grand origins of what will someday be cobbled ruins. It all just feels like how you want something like this to feel. After two hours with this film, I knew I wouldn’t feel like shaving for weeks. 

The cast is uniformly excellent, with Skarsgård really stepping into the kind of presence I always suspected he was capable of. He's man-meat but he's got the chops to back it up. His angsty, vengeance-fueled brooder gave me the sensation that I was watching a much better "Batman" film than the recent Matt Reeves reboot could have hoped to be. Claes Bang, so excellent in "The Square," finally gets a role that should let audiences outside of Europe take notice of him. Nicole Kidman takes what could have been a thanklessly submissive role and turns it into an absolute powerhouse, and I'm finally warming up to the idea that Anya Taylor-Joy might have much more to offer than almost supernatural beauty. I'm not usually much of a "swords & sandals" fan, but I found this to be absolutely thrilling, at least for its first half. The film peaks with a pivotal scene with Kidman, and after that it's a bit of an impatient march to its inevitable conclusion. Still, the film is a wonder to behold. We've never seen anything quite like it, and I wonder if we will again. It has the blood of John Milius coursing through its veins, but Eggers knows much better what to do with a camera than he ever did. While in a recent eye-rolling podcast interview, Eggers spoke like someone that I was almost compelled to beat up. The guy takes dorky histrionics to a level of annoyance, but I simply can't argue with the results he gets. I might like this less if I were to watch it accompanied by a director's commentary track, but in this form I was happily whisked away to a place I never thought I'd wish to visit.

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