The Northman

The Northman ★★★½

A new Robert Eggers movie is an event I wouldn´t want to miss, so I went to the cinema with a lot of hype. In the end, I wasn´t on board with everything, but once again I enjoyed Eggers refreshingly unique artistic style and storytelling.

Among Eggers´ three feature films, “The Northman” is the closest to being a blockbuster, yet at the same time it stays true to his arthouse roots. It´s like Conan the Barbarian meets Shakespeare and Vikings. Epic historical revenge film is a genre that deserves a revival and “The Northman” could be the trailblazer. One aspect I love is the balance between realistic period detail and full-on supernatural mysticism. The film is a trippy, violent fever dream, and that´s exactly what I wanted. What I also find interesting is that although the movie oozes epicness, it´s actually about a rather small-scale personal vendetta. All the stakes are character driven. This also means that you shouldn´t expect large battle sequences with whole armies. This is not that kind of historical epic.

“The Northman” is a primal, immersive, and visceral experience with impeccable vibes, spectacular visuals (cinematography, production design, and effects are topnotch), and fantastic sound design. It goes without saying that this film was made to be seen in a movie theater.

Aside from its glorious style, the film is also characterized by its grimy, bleak, and nihilistic tone and sense of fatalism. At no point did I think that this story could end well, and it doesn´t. “The Northman” shows a world where barbaric violence is ritualized and an integral, almost sacred part of society. It´s often disturbing to watch and despite the gory exploitation fun, it´s also a meditation on the savagery of men, the cycle of violence, and the self-destructive consequences of vengeance.

Coming to the acting, Alexander Skarsgård leads the cast with an impressive physical performance, Anya Taylor-Joy is as radiant as always, and Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke, and Willem Dafoe leave strong impressions in supporting roles. Acting and dialogue are often a bit stagey, but I guess that fits the Shakespearean tragedy.

The problem is that while I´m in awe of the film´s audiovisual presentation and atmosphere, I find the script rather underwhelming. It´s a straightforward revenge story without narrative surprises except maybe one minor twist. I also find the plot repetitive and dragged out. The violent climax doesn´t disappoint, but it feels contrived and unnecessary that it takes so long to get there. Furthermore, I think that the commentary on vengeance, tradition, society, fate, and human nature could be smarter and more in-depth. The marriage of blockbuster and arthouse doesn´t work as well and seamless as intended, in my opinion. The film wants to say something with substance but also wants to play it straight as a testosterone-fueled, pulpy revenge flick, and that creates a dissonance. For me, both “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” are more “complete” and more innovative movies.

That being said, “The Northman” is cinematic as hell, and if we get more blockbusters like this, I certainly won´t complain.

Thomas liked these reviews