Movies · Reviews

‘The Northman’ Struggles to Have Its Bloody Cake and Eat It Too

Alexander Skarsgard in The Northman
Focus Features
By  · Published on April 12th, 2022

Revenge tales are as old as time, but while the likes of Hamlet is considered ancient by some, filmmaker Robert Eggers has reached even further back for his third feature, The Northman. He’s reached, in fact, to the Viking legend that actually inspired Shakespeare’s classic tale of a prince so focused on revenge for his father’s murder that his own life becomes empty in all other regards. It’s Eggers’ biggest movie yet, one that brings his penchant for historical accuracy and detail into the realm of epic entertainment, but while the film delivers spectacle and brutality it neglects to wrangle anything resembling human connection. Granted, its absence will affect some viewers more than others, but a 140-minute running time can be a big ask without it.

It’s 895 AD, and King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) has returned from a bloody adventure with treasure and slaves in tow. His people celebrate, his ironically named brother Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang) sulks, and his wife Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) enjoys the spoils of war. Aurvandil decides it’s time his young son Amleth (Oscar Novak) becomes a man, but after sharing a drug and fart-filled ceremony that leaves father and son howling, the king is murdered by Fjölnir. The man takes the throne and the queen, but young Amleth escapes to the sea, and twenty years later the now hulking Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is a man fueled only by carnage and a desire for revenge. “I will avenge you father, I will save you mother, I will kill you Fjölnir,” is his mantra, and with the premonition of an old witch (Bjork) lighting his way, he heads to Iceland to accomplish all three.

The Northman is likely as commercial a film as the director of The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019) is capable of crafting, but that’s no knock. Bloody battles, stunning natural locales, a riveting score, and the familiarity of a man’s hunger for revenge all work to entertain the senses, and its narrative models range from Hamlet to Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Gladiator (2000). All of that said, it’s far from the big entertainment that some viewers may be expecting.

A man looks down at his murdered son’s body, touches the hole in the young man’s torso, and screams that his son’s heart is missing. It’s a dramatically effective scene in The Northman given what precedes it, but it also hints at the film’s biggest issue — it too, lacks heart. We don’t care for or about any of these characters, not even Amleth whose crusade, while just, is severely muddled by a life spent creating hundreds of orphans by his own hand. Of course, while the best revenge tales touch our souls and hearts with their grief and rage, neither is absolutely necessary if the momentum and energy are strong enough to carry viewers through.

At 140-minutes, The Northman doesn’t quite have that pacing, though. There are genuinely thrilling action sequences here including an early one-shot sequence that follows Amleth and his viking raiding party as they assault a small village and a late sword fight atop a volcano, but they’re punctuations. The bulk of the film is more focused on gorgeous landscapes beset by harsh weather, scowling faces, and dialogue that can’t commit to the Old Norse language that you just know Eggers wanted (but understandably couldn’t get away with at this high of a budget). The film’s in English, but some sequences switch to Norse or (possibly) Icelandic, sometimes with subtitles, sometimes without.

It’s a rare inconsistency in a film that feels otherwise built from the ground up with weathered hands and natural materials. Eggers’ eye for historical authenticity comes through in the costumes and production design — by Linda Muir and Craig Lathrop, respectively, both of whom also worked on the director’s previous films — helping ensure the feeling of immersion that he both craves and delivers for audiences. Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke captures the raw beauty of a hard world just as easily as he does the ugliness of a mud, blood, and shit-covered existence. The score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough finds the otherworldly soundscape of a Valkyrie’s charge just as easily as it does the aggressive beat of a bloody attack sequence. Digital effects take a backseat to natural wonders, but they occasionally intrude as with some very obvious CG smoke covering the giblets of two nude men fighting at the mouth of a volcano.

Skarsgård’s performance is an animalistic one that sees him move through carnage and downtime alike with a passive expression marred occasionally by rage, his shoulders hunched as if he was Atlas carrying the world itself on his back. The ripped body he displayed in 2016’s The Legend of Tarzan is jacked here in a wholly different way offering up a meatier, fiercer physique built not in a gym but on the field of battle. He oozes menace and simplicity, but while it’s an effective combination at its core it leaves no room for nuance or emotion. It’s challenged further through his interactions with Amleth’s mother as Kidman’s “go big or go home” performance just swallows up everything in her path.

Anya Taylor-Joy co-stars as a witchy love interest, but as with Kidman she feels one step removed from The Northman‘s grittier, earthier realities. Part of it is their pristine physical appearances — smooth, freshly plucked, and cleanly dressed opposite hairy, dirty, smelly men — but Taylor-Joy’s accent of choice suggests the Vikings may have abducted her during a raid in Transylvania. (I exaggerate. Slightly.) The film’s best performance, and the one that comes closest to finding an emotional center, belongs to Bang. His Fjölnir is a conflicted man whose own rage, love, and grief find a far stronger footing than Amleth’s manages, and you almost wish Eggers had chosen to make him the center of the story instead.

The script, co-written by Eggers and Icelandic poet Sjón, goes hard with its historical and literary elements, but no viewer who’s paying attention with have difficulty following along. The Northman may be interspersed prophecy, odes to fate, and visions of a family tree growing forward and backward, but its core narrative of revenge is a time-honored one familiar to anyone who’s experienced more than a few movies or books. Amleth’s quest for vengeance is the drive, one that the film manifests as a destiny foretold that he can’t escape from even if he wanted to, and his purpose becomes the film’s for better or worse.

The Northman is ultimately a staggered success that too often feels like a B-movie tale of a revenge weighed down by the molasses-slathered trappings of prestige. The elements of both are present and often deliver in their individual goals, but the combination strugglers to find a natural pairing — think Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009) as a film that arguably merges those two desires more successfully. None of this is to suggest that Eggers’ film is ever dull as he ensures that every moment has some element holding viewers’ attention, whether it be the visuals, action, cast, or carnage. Still, and blame the meddling of moneymen for this, The Northman doesn’t quite feel as pure of an Eggers creation as his previous two films.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.