The Northman

The Northman ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

If you ever watched “Valhalla Rising” and wondered how good it would be if it actually worked, well, this movie is indeed that overcharged Nordic fever dream come to life. Very quickly (within about the first five minutes), this movie signals that it isn’t going to be told the traditional way, with a straightforward plot, and grounded characters etc. It isn’t so much a Viking revenge tale as the impressionistic echo of an old Norse saga—one that intertwines its blood-drenched masculinity into the very sinew of its mythic tapestry, but again the remakable thing about this film is the simple fact that it actually works, despite always keeping you at arm’s length due to its somewhat abstract nature. However, there's two stories being told here. It's primary surface story is an ordinary one about a boy taking a life-long vow of revenge, but it's true defining conflict goes far beyond that, and is actually about the struggle against the trappings of myth that the central character simply interprets as fate. The boy is Amleth, the prince of a small kingdom whose life is thrown into disarray after the sudden murder of his beloved father by his uncle Fjolnir, who usurps him and marries his mother in turn. If this loosely sounds like “Hamlet” it’s because it’s based on the original story that inspired Shakespeare’s most famous and best regarded play (there also seemed to be trace influences from “The Tempest” and “Macbeth” in this as well). The interesting thing here is that Egger’s seems to be tapping into some of the very same qualities that makes “Hamlet” so rich, compelling, and quite honestly impenetrable on multiple levels.

On the surface, “Hamlet” is also seen as a tale of revenge, whose main conflict seems to stem from the oft-mistaken notion that Hamlet simply can’t make up his mind. There is something much, much deeper at play there, and there’s a good chance that it involves a large part of Shakespeare’s personal life and was perhaps the encapsulating thing he was working on for the majority of his career. There’s evidence to suggest that Shakespeare worked and tinkered on Hamlet for decades. At one point it supposedly underwent a drastic change, and the similarity of the play’s title (and titular character) to his son’s name Hamnet (who tragically died at eleven) has been pointed out for ages (it should also be kept in mind that the spelling of names and words were much more malleable back then compared to now). The play is grim. Sparse. Brooding. Loomingly vast in scope and vision. It contemplates the philosophical notions of being, and what it means to live and act in a world beset by chaos and violence. Hamlet doesn’t struggle to make up his mind whether or not to kill his uncle, he struggles with the reasoning to live and act out his chosen “part” in the grand overture of life constructed around him. He knows he ultimately can’t escape this, and so constructs a play (within the play itself) as his defining act of vengeance, not only against his uncle, but also against the very borders of fate. Everything that happens at the end is a sort of postscript: it is merely the fulfillment of his part set into motion; inevitability brought into fruition, though he grapples heavily on an internal level with this recognition and thus brings a tiny crack of transcendent insight for all of us to view and ponder as well.

This movie intriguingly draws upon some of those deeper notions in a vastly different form, as there’s a similar paralysis of action within Amleth that can confuse a viewer who attempts to take everything literally. The difference here is that instead of being confined by logic and reasoning like Hamlet, Amleth is confined by the illogical rules of magic and superstition. There’s numerous moments where Amleth can safely enact his revenge but disregards it due to it not corresponding to the exact prophesized time and place, or without the correct tools to do so, either through physical means (a magical sword) or through an appropriate mindset (one that’s completely cast off the world to exist solely as the avatar of vengeance and destruction). There’s scene after scene where events are shown in two forms: through exaggerated fantasy, and through a contrasting, sobering reality; portrayed as the deflated, groggy aftermath in which a confused Amleth awakens from a hyperreal dream-state unsure of what exactly transpired. The most thrilling such sequence shows Amleth descending into a timeless pit of discarded myth strewn with the detritus of long forgotten artifacts in order to gain a sword through a sort of trial by moonlight. He confronts a guardian that he’s only able to defeat after exposing it to the moon’s immobilizing glare. (This is an ancient notion that you might be familiar with from “The Witcher” novels and games. If you ever wondered why Geralt needs a separate silver sword to kill monsters, it’s because silver has long been associated with the realm of the moon: the court of dreams, from which the denizens of fable and myth slink their way out of into our world. The idea seems to be that you can only defeat/banish these creatures by using the same element from which they derive from). This is what I mean when I say that the central conflict isn’t just about revenge but taps into a much deeper space that “Hamlet” similarly draws from. Amleth is fundamentally torn between living an ordinary life of peace and of fulfilling the destiny of a much larger mythic structure pre-cut around him eons ago like a weathered template of runic stone. That is the true confluence of themes that lies at the beating heart of this film.

I've probably made this sound headier than it actually is. The stand out thing about this film is its immediate visceral impact, which is visionary and impactful, and is probably best enjoyed in the same way you’d watch “The Lighthouse” as a bewildering and awe-inspiring audiovisual experience. In some ways this also reminded me of “The Green Knight” and while I felt that film incorporated its pictorial majesty a bit more fluidly into its narrative, I think they both perform the astounding act of presenting the anachronistic past into a modern form that feels both foreign and familiar at the same time. The “VVitch” might still be Egger’s best film overall, but I think this is simultaneously his most rewatchable and also the most rewarding, although you have to dig a bit deeper into some of the unusual things this movie attempts and succeeds at pulling off.

Added Note: This is the 2nd film with Nordic origins to feature the plot denouement of a teardrop bridging the gulf between a father and son. “Thor” also did the same. Something to keep an eye on…

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