The Northman

The Northman ★★★

An axe-swinging, gristle crushing, bone-breaking, blood splattering maximal mess of a film. The Northman is most certainly not the sort of period piece that casually depicts a time period, nor does it observe from a distance; it fully drenches itself in viscera, mud, and rain. This film breathes and howls the blood-soaked reality of Viking vengeance. With all the feral energy necessary to survive such an epic, unforgiving, and mythological world, it recklessly rushes forward, reaching its fist deep into the primal, animalistic caverns of the human soul.

Like an ancient poem lifting right from the Scandinavian landscape, the story grows grand, drawn with fast, broad strokes; its themes are stark, simplified and repetitive— as if they are nordic runes forcefully scratched into a stone. Yet, there is something unwieldy in this balance. There may be plenty enough fight in all this brutish effort, but the film lurches unevenly in its momentum. The pacing is irregular and choppy, as if it too caught some stray blows from some berserk warrior. Scenes often feel either too rushed or too long, precluding the tension of build-up, or truncating their dramatic resolution.

Whereas The Witch and The Lighthouse are both slow spirals into madness, The Northman is one sustained note of madness, arriving too fast and wearing itself out too swiftly. It is the same degree of maximal madness the whole way through— which is undoubtedly impressive and invigorating, but also tiring and exhausting. And perhaps this is partly the point, meant to convey the spirit-sapping, life-leeching, unshakable burden of revenge. That pact turned emotion turned sole driving purpose, which pushes all else aside in the wake of its single-minded, all-consuming, obliterating drive.  

Along the edge of such a drive we see those that facilitate it: the prophets, seers, sorceresses, and witches. Those magic, mystic scaffolds that keep the warrior along his fateful path of (self-)destruction… of yelling, screaming, groaning, huffing, howling. For good or ill, everything is hyper-focused on the simplicity of these surface states. Whether immersed in brutal combat, in quiet tension of silver night, in gloom of fog and fire, or pausing long enough to observe the gorgeous vistas of Iceland, the film does not successfully distract from its standard story and bare characters. For although its its bestial blows may tear right into the aortas, its simplistic themes fail to reach a similar emotional heart.

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