The Northman

The Northman ★★★½

A big budget A24 action spectacle? Drugged out, murderous, berserker vikings? The guy who did The Lighthouse and The Witch? This checks EVERY box imaginable for me.

The film is obviously gorgeous. Ethan Hawke kills his role. Alexander Skarsgård’s bloodthirsty screams are pretty cool. But while watching, I kept getting hit with that dreaded, “meh,” feeling.

First off, the Hamlet / Lion King story of, “you killed my dad, now I kill you,” has obviously been retold many times. It’s not the most exciting narrative nowadays, but The Northman tries to counterbalance that with some gnarly set pieces, teases of the supernatural and trippy rituals.

However in my experience, the best antidote for a simple ass plot is a complex protagonist and vice versa. For instance, a James Bond movie can have a complicated, globetrotting, twisty narrative and its central character can just be a horny killer with a Walther PPK. On the other side of the spectrum, Unforgiven can be a straightforward vengeance plot about a hired gun, but William Munny is a complex protagonist trapped between his new peaceful self and his savage past.

The Northman has a very simple story and an even simpler main character in Amleth. This dude is just flat-out not interesting. Take a Conan the Barbarian for instance. Two characters from the same mold, and while Conan is clearly campier, the comparison is still apt. Schwarzenegger gives the character some pizazz— defiant, low key humorous, and sometimes even playful about his kills.

Skarsgård’s Amleth has frustratingly little growth in the movie.

This is his character growth in a nutshell:
-I want vengeance.
-I want vengeance very bad.
-I still want vengeance.
-Wait, do I want vengeance?
-Yes I do

I wish Amleth was more dynamic. If The Northman’s protagonist had some spice to his personality, I think the film would have excelled tenfold.

There’s also an irksome issue I’ve found in some A24 releases. There’s a faux profundity that constantly seeps through the film’s narrative, particularly in the dialogue. Characters will have poorly written dialogue exchanges, but because it’s spoken in a Nordic Old English accent, it's supposed to be good? Once you translate it in your head, all the guy said is, “I’m gonna kill you.”

And do we need these chapter titles in the movie? At one point a guy says, “I’ll see you at the gates of hell.” The screen goes black and the title appears… “Gates of Hell.” We don't need that. Sometimes it feels like filmmakers think if you put chapter titles in the movie, it comes off like a book. Then, Book = Smart Stuff.

Lastly, movies like The Northman make me really respect movies like— Apocalypse Now, The Revenant, Apocalypto, Come and See etc. All of these films have “spoils of war” sequences. Where pillagers storm villages and lay waste. Oftentimes, this is done in large sweeping shots with hordes of extras engaged in complicated blocking. In all of the aforementioned examples, the “spoils of war” scenes almost feel like a documentary. In The Northman I could sense the camera crew’s presence. The rituals and dancing were fun, but it kinda looked like actors just having a blast around a campfire.

In spite of my gripes, I’m hoping this movie does well. I always felt like big budget action and arthouse flair would make for a dynamic duo. This film is the first of its kind in that regard. I predict its level of success will be a defining moment for similar movies of its ilk.

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