“The Northman” is masterful, brutal Viking epic


Focus Features

Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) trudges through battle in Robert Eggers’ “The Northman.” The film is now playing in theaters.

Noah Sparkman, Editor-in-Chief

Avenge father. Save mother. Kill Fjolnir.
This is the mantra of Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), as he seeks revenge against his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang), the man who killed his father and took his kingdom in “The Northman.” The film is co-written and directed by Robert Eggers, and features a star-studded cast including Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe, and is now playing in theaters.
Although this is Eggers’ first major studio outing, he’s far from a beginner. Previous efforts “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” have been lauded for their surrealist and absurdist approach to more traditional stories, as well as the thematic material contained within each of the films.
Naturally, when “The Northman” was announced as a big-budget Viking revenge epic from the mind of such a talented filmmaker, there was excitement among a lot of film circles.
With the film now in wide release, it is safe to say that Eggers has created yet another powerhouse of a film.
The screenplay, which Eggers co-wrote with Icelandic poet Sjón, is not really anything new. We have seen a revenge story like this many times before, and you will likely know where the film is going to end.
However, it is infrequent to see this story told with such thought and effort.
Eggers has a clear reverence for Scandinavian and Norse culture and uses that respect to create a wholly intoxicating depiction of betrayal, rage and vengeance.
Rituals allow the protagonists to see their family lineage. Valkyries descend from the gates of Valhalla. Massive battles unfurl, with blood being shed in bucketfuls.
The film feels so authentic Scandinavian culture that it sometimes feels like we really could be looking at Iceland in 859 A.D.
Strangely, though, in what may be an act of restraint (or studio interference), it does often feel as though Eggers does not go as far into the mystical side of Norse culture as he maybe could have.
This is not to say that the film is generic, because it is most assuredly not. Eggers’ wild imagination is still on display here, as he creates mythical weapons like a hungry blade that feeds upon blood, and guides Amleth through a gauntlet of soothsayers, witches and other mystical forces.
Ultimately, though where his other films dared to be strange and perplexing, “The Northman” is often more content to stick to being a well-crafted revenge tale.
Fortunately, this is not much of an issue given that Eggers is quickly becoming a master of his craft.
The movie is immaculately shot by Jarin Blaschke, who previously worked on “The Lighthouse.” Here, he and Eggers have perfectly framed each shot to establish the mood of the film.
Massive wide shots with characters dwarfed in the center of the shot expertly evoke the true grandeur of the journey that Amleth, and the audience, are embarking on. Elegant long takes frame the expertly-choreographed action perfectly, almost so that it feels like we are within the scene.
In addition, the ever-compelling color palette and some clever imagery ensure that the two have deftly created what will be looked back as one of the year’s best looking films.
Outside of the way it looks, the film is constructed brilliantly, with Eggers always allowing for the silent moments to fuel the action and emotion moving forward.
The biggest pleasure, though, is how unexpectedly contemplative and introspective “The Northman” is, especially in comparison to his previous work.
While Eggers has a lot to get across in the film, fate is the concept that he most frequently examines.
Throughout the film, Amleth’s fate is continuously brought up. He believes that he has a clearly defined path through his life, one ordained to him by several witches and warlocks in the first third of the film.
Amleth is bound to his fate to avenge his father. Fjolnir is bound to die at his hands.
What comes after is unknown, though. Amleth has no clue whether he will live or die, or what the rest of his life will look like after he fulfills what the gods have placed upon him.
As the film progresses, the gist becomes clear. Like his father, like Fjlonir, like their father, and like many before them, Amleth is fated to fall from power.
This begs the question: why? Is it the gods’ retribution for some of the horrible things that Amleth is shown to have done throughout the film to reach his goals? Has his purpose simply been accomplished once he kills Fjolnir?
The answer, in the end, is simple. He is controlled by rage. It guides his every move throughout the film, and is the thing that will ultimately undo him.
Rage compels Fjolnir to seize the crown through force in the first place, as he feels disrespected by not being placed on the throne.
As these two men, and many before and after them, kill countless men, they are simply instilling anger in more people, who will no doubt seek vengeance one day.
Eggers exposes us to this vicious, unending cycle in the microcosm of this family’s decades-long feud, posing one simple question: Can it be broken?
Wisely, he chooses not to offer a definitive answer to that question. There is a refreshing bit of ambiguity surrounding the subject, including a breathtaking final shot that will likely determine your interpretation of the film.
Whether the conclusion you draw is bleak or hopeful, there is sure to be some profundity in what Eggers has crafted here.
By the time the credits roll, Eggers’ fate as one of the most compelling auteurs of this generation seems to be set in stone. All that we can hope is that he does not cut the threads of fate.