The Northman

The Northman ★★★½

Unlike the The Witch or The Lighthouse, the titular entity of The Northman does not serve as film’s zenith of mystery and intrigue. Instead, Alexander Skarsgard’s Amleth is your conventional medieval revenge protagonist, forged in violence and hate, whose fate has begotten the cycle of suffering and ensnares all that surrounds him in hell. It is instead Anya Taylor-Joy’s maybe-sorceress, hair like a Valkyrie, who carries Amleth and his family tree out of the hellfire of earth and into an otherworldly familial peace, who serves as Eggers’ source of intrigue and thematic exploration. 

The problem is that we have no reason to believe that Amleth’s violent sacrifice cleansed his familial curse, and that his twin children will be free of the generational trauma. We don’t know if Amleth really is as simple as his father, and if his family is better off without him and Fjolnir than if he stayed on the boat and rolled the dice of fate: whether or not Fjolnir and his child would hunt them down.

It’s this straightforward plot that keeps The Northman from being as interesting as Eggers’ first two features, even if this has the visual elements that far exceed any blockbuster of its era (and with appropriate thematic attachment, unlike a similar film, The Green Knight). This film (mostly) forgoes the magical elements for a more human explanation of worldly events, and Eggers’ interpersonal relationships have never been his cinematic strong suit. Instead, we get a revenge flick that dabbles in romance and subversion but ultimately follows the standard action fare. 

In some ways this construct betrays some of Eggers’ style, especially in its historical accuracy. The film being shot in what is obviously Ireland (replete with Irish accented extras!) subverts his usually obsessive commitment to unrecognizable historical relevancy. It also keeps him from truly exploring literary and spiritual texts, despite us getting some pretty gnarly Norse ceremonies here. It’s a great synecdoche for the film’s emphasis of the visual in lieu of the philosophical. 

All of this makes The Northman a gorgeous and jarring blockbuster film but nothing that will keep me up at night like the first two films in his filmography. Eggers wanted to tackle an action film, struggled a bit with the studio process, and ultimately got a movie he was pleased but not ecstatic with. I dare say I have similar sentiments.

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