The Northman

The Northman ★★★★½

Director Robert Eggers has become into one of those names where it got fun to follow the reactions that each new film of his generates. Like Nolan, Aronofsky, Chazelle, Villeneuve, it’s either praised as a visionary masterwork from one of the greatest modern directors of the industry…or shoved down the pretentious alley as yet another dumpster fire that won’t appeal to general audiences nor nose-up critics who see nothing cinematic in a work made to impress with “artistic” flourishes.

The Northman even more than his previous two, was a different – and also unpredictable expectation, seen how it got sold as perhaps the most “crowd-pleasing” conventional film of his career yet, a turn towards accessible narratives and potential commercial success, moving away from the hallmark that he set with his two acclaimed films, but still with enough traces to say that's still the same director behind all the ideas and the craft.

Not that this meant that the reactions would be any different, but who knows, maybe a surprise stood in the Valhalla horizon for this one. But nah, The Northman is exactly what it is in the first place: the third Robert Eggers film, that’s either going to be loved or hated it, and I couldn’t asked for more as this is probably my favorite of his so far!

I did found a very odd choice for Focus Features and Universal having picked and trusted Eggers of all people with this large of a budget, either because he clearly gain creative trust, and also maybe trying to make him yet another ‘exoteric blockbuster’ director like Aronofsky or Nolan, whom gives that extra taste of “artsie fartsie” complexity into a larger production in each of their new movies that follow crazy bad-shit concepts.

Though I wouldn’t say that Eggers managed to be successful as these two – but not for lack of trying – simply because Eggers is really not making a film for large audiences appeal, just for his own, like it or not, and all the better for it! Coming from the same guy that made The Witch and The Lighthouse, and you get here hallucinogenic mind trip contemplation, psychological evaluation of character, historically based mythology and religion invading the individual’s reality as a revaluation of his own existence.

The same old Eggers, added with a nice unpredictability that comes with the fact that we certainly don’t know what to expect of him by each new movie, which is great, especially if it comes more unpredictable projects such as this one, that this time involves medieval epic, Norse Mythology, Shakespearean revenge tale and a all-star cast, and plays with all of those with great taste for classic genre filmmaking. He had my curiosity and full attention from the get go!

From the very projection and ideas running behind it all, this feels like a very old-school classic epic production, much like those 50s medieval swashbucklers that had a passion for the theatrics, taking itself, its heroes and dramas seriously, truly the kind of filmmaking many claim is long dead, and it's true, briefly resurrected here. And met, with some of that 70s eager for playing with the dark side of melodrama, reflecting something more intimate and disturbing behind it all – Polanski’s Macbeth came to mind almost immediately; all drenched in this brooding texture trying to be Tarkovsky, Jodorowsky Bergman on steroids.

For that, it takes Icelandic old legend of Amleth and treats it like a wilder barbaric version of Hamlet, with some sprinkles of other Shakespearean traces that more than ever are ingrained in basic storytelling traits, like Amleth’s mission and destiny being laid down by mystical visions, prophecies of his creation that guide his journey, very similarly to Macbeth, plus Kidman’s Queen Gudrún who later in the plot reveals herself as taking on the Lady Macbeth role, SO MUCH better than McDormand recently attempted to in a legit version of Macbeth – and somehow even crueler.

Though Eggers as a creator of both immersive sensorial experience, along with small character existential struggle built from the within and the small nuances, the movie peals closer to genre fantasy epics that, not only staples of such narratives, but also dealt with familiar traces that are here present.

Making a fining match between Millius’s Conan: The Barbarian meets Boorman’s Excalibur. From one the animalistic barbaric warrior, a brute with mammoth muscles, that expresses himself through that animalistic masculine virility, but with a melancholy heart akin for revenge. Mixed with the other’s surreal fantasy invading the supernatural outward above the characters, clashing legend and mythos into one grounded hypnotic and visceral reality.

Though for some most of this will only fall flat on his face, standing just as stylistic frills that might help to sell what’s the most conventional plot that Eggers ever came across in his career thus far, with some “high-art” texture thrown in a blockbuster production that is bound to flop. But outsells it, not just in the psychedelic way he tells it, but also in the almost unpredictable level of unraveling that the story takes on!

The first twenty minutes that revolves around the story establishment are downright perfect, and the movie may never recover from that same synergy of pace and storytelling throughout the rest of it, but is because it tries to never repeat the same beats or hammer in the same points. It’s constantly building upon itself, developing to something that grabs you by intrigue alone, just to see where it goes in this small adventure towards seeking death and retribution.

There’s a horror touch in that, where the later half even finds Eggers fitting the film into a cloistered confined stage much like his previous films, but even there the scale of the world shows itself, the journey never loses its ante, and the drama never drops energy of conflict. Somehow Eggers just knew that to avoid make a simple macho-spectacle out of a revenge plot, he entices it with interesting set of intrigues, so get ready to see some The Count of Monte Cristo psychologically playing and taunting with its victims set in the Viking era

Only enhanced by some sword fighting, guts being ripped, dismemberment happening ever so constantly here and there in small portions, all to let the sadistic medieval violence lovers akin for more, and the more always come with some nice character drama followed along. Where at a point, the film might as well be just loosely based on Amleth, is not trying to be a faithful word by word depiction, as Nordic tale had its own bureaucracy of roles and blood lines modeling the story, something not so absent here, but is far from being the main point.

While it treats its Viking backdrop as grounded in a brutal reality, not as gruesome as maybe Refn’s Valhalla Rising, but definitely closer to that than BBC-looking production Vikings series for instance, somehow finding fine place between both. And at its drama modulation, it reaches for the Shakespearean feels of intrigue and moral clashes almost superbly, and then in the end, it helps to form what it feels like a visual representation of a lyrical prose, delivered in the shape of a BADASS Viking revenge movie! Having historical accuracy as its main template, and through it, creating a truly worthy of the name: immersive experience to be sunk in on.

Jarin Blaschke yet again almost rekindles that classical period texture of hand-made effects and lighting, added and amplified here with some modernistic traits of long tracking shoots with hidden cuts, that transposes you in the action much like Iñárritu’s The Revenant, but much less showy about it. Simply because Eggers just seems to use it as the best way to shoot the action in a more immersive and downright exciting format.

With smooth camera work that lingers through each scene and you feel inside of it that never drops the ball and delivers small scale swashbuckling that feels brutal and epic, aided not only by Skarsgård’s AMAZING physical performance, but also Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough THUNDEROUS soundtrack that gets you under the skin with roaring chants and beets that can turn boys into men in a flash. That final duel inside a volcano is the best uncle vs nephew fight ever since Simba vs Scar, set in Mount Doom and choreography that tops Anakin vs Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith. Yes, IT IS THAT BADASS!

If the movie was only but that, it would already instantly have my liking, but it goes even further trying to tell a real character story amidst all the mind-trip and blood being shed in incandescent alpha-male virility. In that same virility, here’s a world that gets presented to us, where the role of being a man is to be absent of any emotion that not of firing rage towards your enemy.

Where alpha male sensibilities run at large and command the very moral fiber of this world where lives are mere tools to be used, dilacerated and slaved by those who has the bigger stick. And where a literal tear, something a man is basically forbidden to remotely emote, is a key to unleash the human side, the revenge path that will be taken in the film!

Emotions getting manifested through violence, bloodlines are built in religious mysticism, a culture relishing power and revenge. Where pure primal instincts like men acting like wolves or farting aren’t just a little funny, but that very caricatured imagery is relished like a cult. Here lies the reason for Eggers fixation towards all the research he made prior to the movie, the culture, mythology behind it all.

From legendary swords sealing the fate of a chosen leader; guarded by zombie kings fighting like they were Dark Souls bosses, gods and freaking Björk standing as a oracle manifest through animals; and valkyries riding to Valhalla in some EPIC imagery; elements that to its protagonist and the characters around it, build a sense of identity, a sense of purpose to find meaning in destiny!

But in this world can destiny and fate be avoided, or just embrace them?! Maybe not in the legendary mythical sense, but conquering personhood achieved through honoring the family, the dead and their legacy – the only way seem fit to act as human in this mentality. And used by Eggers as a storytelling way to craft a visceral experience that aims for the guts and for the heart.

He may falter in building a conventional heartwarming feel narrative, and the characters may stand as those symbolic archetypical caricatures than actually felt as human beings. But the struggles and the way they are written feel incredibly grounded, giving that sight through that dark side of humanity in a place where morals are shady, good and bad are precepts that get confused with each other. Everyone has their purposes on their actions, doesn’t making them better or worse than the next, everyone’s on the same level, result of a culture rooted in pure cruelty and without regret for human life.

Amleth departs from this environment and in his journey driven by hatred, he fulfills a typical hero's journey: finding humanity where he never thought to find it, whether in the carnal temptation that becomes love in the character of Anya Taylor Joy – the only rare ray of possible goodness, but even there it can easily be argued that she’s doing what she’s doing helping Amleth just out of pure survival, and seems very fitting, and all the more tragic.

Whom in his development, struggles with emotions, pity and doubt in the attitudes he is about to do against those he has cherished the feeling of retribution all his life. It may be nothing much, but seeing Skarsgård’s frowning brooding expression, facing the weight of it all, is kind of heartbreaking… The romance may be simple, but you feel that is a way out of a stone cold world made in brutality;

And the tragedy and the “plot-twist” may be seen predictable, but performed in such a way that you buy the simplicity of its delivery as vital parts of this narrative to work! Therefore, the roles and the events gain weight through the sheer power of performance of those very archetypical clichés, gaining legitimacy through the very essence of emoting in this somber reality!

Ethan Hawke devours every minute he has on screen, even kind of making you miss the energy he was brining to the film later on;

Willem Dafoe is priceless as court jester who is a drugged shaman in his spare time, a few seconds on the scene but his face and voice are already engraved in your memory;

Anya Taylor-Joy goes around stealing your attention as she always does, feels like a legit person from that period ripped from a time machine and placed in the film;

Props to Kidman who goes from an uneven one-noted character with a god-awful accent in the beginning…to become the most interestingly complex character of the film RELISHING in pure sheer cruelty, but also a part where you can easily read as all part of a demented cold sense of sheer survival;

Claes Bang is terrific in what goes from the pretty obvious antagonist role, to reveal an actually loving father whom just wanted to raise his family right, and saw his brother kingdom as cruel hypocrite as he was. Not absent of a sense of ruthlessness demeanor, but one you can see beyond the easy characteristics of the ‘uncle villain’ role;

And the man who made it all possible: Alexander Skarsgård, whose out of a personal dream to be part of a Viking movie after his brother Gustaf refused him any roles in the Vikings TV show, helped Eggers to bring this project to life. Delivering his all bonafied best yet in a physical presence that is haunting, intimidating, but also genuine in his suffering and the struggles he faces, and the journey he embarks, not of revenge, but to make his beliefs and actions all worth something in the end!

The Witch was about escaping fanatism to find freedom through darkness; The Lighthouse was meeting doom at the expense of one’s ego towards the unknown of himself; and now The Northman is about finding a sense of humanity in the impossible time, and sacrificing it at the expense of revenge, prophesized by myth, trying to make it worth at the reach of gaining his place in the afterlife.

But also something more intrinsic, Amleth ultimately knows that that is the cycle of life, his vengeance and path of violence will be nurtured in a family tree molded in blood and power dispute, him leaving his hope behind is to make it worth it, and safe, outside this world doomed to just fall in damnation, earning his place at Valhalla, having his efforts and faith, rewarded, even in his last breath getting embraced by the comfort of illusion, much like mythology and legend gives inspiration to men continue to dream about their better-selves.

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