The Northman

The Northman ★★★★

"Amleth, your strength breaks men's bones. I have the cunning to break their minds."

I'm just thankful Robert Eggers didn't make another horror movie that I can't watch.

Still upset that there's no way I'll ever be able to survive that debut feature, nonetheless I am here for his other works as long as they're not scary, in The Lighthouse and this new movie The Northman, a smashing and brutal revenge flick bursting with style and panache, and also metal as fuck. Immersed in Viking mythology and thrilling historical atmosphere, this is another savage and beautiful film from a one-of-a-kind artist.

In the late 9th Century, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns home from victorious raids and voyages over the seas, greeting his wife Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and son Amleth (Oscar Novak). Amleth is entrusted with royal responsibilities for the first time as his father is injured. But soon, warriors sent by the king's brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) attack and murder Aurvandill, kidnap Gudrún, and nearly kill Amleth until he escapes the grips of housecarl Finnr (Eldar Skar).

Years later as an adult (Alexander Skarsgård), the prince is now a savage Viking berserker who never forgets the vengeance he wishes to enact and the mother he wishes to save. A vision granted by a Seeress (Björk) confirms his purpose to avenge his father. Hearing that Fjölnir is in Iceland, Amleth stows away as a slave with the help of Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) – a Slavic sorceress – to the northern island in search of his fate. There, he discovers his mother is still alive, now forced to marry Fjölnir.

Bleak, unrelenting, and nihilistic, The Northman is also patient and deliberate in its storytelling, content sometimes to build in anticipation and other times to relish in mud and sweat. With some nuanced commentary on myth and religion – "their god is a corpse nailed to a tree!" – Eggers is also eager to insert more than just a brooding revenge tale when he has so much lore with which to work, but also demented enough to make the second half of the movie a truly brutal work of psychological horror. No, not scary in the traditional sense, but an unforgiving rage-fest of mystical terror and chaos.

A long middle act is probably too long – yet also with some odd linearity and contrivances, drawing out the runtime as you quickly begin to feel its length, like my ex-wife would begrudgingly admit about me – but holy Odin do things ramp up with wicked intensity and wild twists of violent retribution. At the same time, Eggers allows his film to present a treatise on the intersection of vengeance and fate. It's not the best film to comment on these themes together – that would be the criminally underseen Kazakh movie Revenge – but this one has Anya Taylor-Joy's menstruating vagina so maybe it's a close race.

The performances are uniformly terrific, Taylor-Joy and Skarsgård notably, but don't sleep on a wondrous spot from Nicole Kidman who explodes with emotion in the final act. And aside from the production design the real star is just the insane research and attention to historical detail on this movie, though fantastical and mythical it's also grounded in known facts and literary traditions, as this informative article from InsideHook's Mark Asch explains. You nerds will love that.

Fresh though familiar, visually arresting and brilliantly scored, The Northman in many ways is not my kind of film at all but I totally dug it. Maybe instead of chopping off so many heads though, Eggers could have chopped off 20 or 25 minutes, and he'd have a perfect movie.

Friend who wrote a better review than me: Cory Taylor.
Find others like them on my two special lists here and here!

Added to The Narrative Films of 2022, ranked.

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