It turns out that all it took to bring me out of an 18-month writing hiatus was a hyperviolent Viking epic that was basically a jacked and ‘roided A24 movie hopped on Four Lokos and lean (even though it’s not A24). Not even Dune which I hyped so vehemently could liberate me of my self-imposed writers block and help me regain the strength to remaster the art of the internet blog. When a movie rises from the ashes of the trash that is modern Hollywood as the physical embodiment of Led Zeppelin’s No Quarter, it’s hard to leave it ignored.
Melodrama aside, The Northman reflects a certain kind of historical epic who’s tone, scope, and general plot we’ve seen many times before. It’s a revenge saga about a young Viking prince named Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård ) who makes it his life goal to avenge the murder of his Father (Ethan Hawke) by his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), and the capture of his Queen mother (Nicole Kidman). In this regard, The Northman is on-paper a pseudo-remake of Gladiator, if one uses the same logic that Avatar is a remake of Dances With Wolves. The key factor that sets this film apart is the skill by which it has been crafted, making it stand boldly among its fellow historical epic films.
Director Robert Eggers (of The Lighthouse infamy) brings the full force of his dark artistry and historical nerdery to forge a movie that commands your presence from start to finish. The Northman quickly turns into a cinematic sinkhole that traps its viewers into the world of the Norse and Ancient Rus cultures, as blaring war-horns and panoramic vistas of the cold, unforgiving Icelandic coasts serve as the opening backdrop for Viking ritual and prophecy. It has been well-documented as being the most historically-accurate Viking production ever made, and even if that weren’t known to the average viewer, the authenticity of each set-piece, prop, and moment of cultural distinction speaks for themselves extremely well, all a credit to Egger’s attention to detail. Without getting into spoilers, there’s also a pronounced mythical angle to Amleth’s story, which as one would expect knowing Eggers, adds numerous religiously-fueled psychedelic moments scattered throughout, notably emphasized by a brief but predictably eclectic performance from Icelandic singer Björk as a seeress. As each of these elements play through unforgiving sequences of ancient violence and bloodshed, undoubtedly an honest visage of historical warfare, the audience is given what I can only compare to a living-history experience, in a way that few if any real-life exhibits could provide.
Beyond the sheer force of the world in which The Northman takes place, the film is elevated to riveting levels by its cast. Skarsgård absolutely owns every moment that he’s on screen; as his character evolves from a “beserker” foot-soldier who was raised as a savage, his commitment to rage is so powerful that you’d half expect him to jump out and murder the whole audience. His emotion somehow never plays in excess and always seems to match both his goals and the environment in which he grows as a character. There are multiple foils to Amleth’s fury, but perhaps most underrated is Claes Bang as Fjölnir, who carries the same honor as Amleth, but with some degree of exhaustion (tied to the plot) and helps deliver one of the greatest battles I’ve seen in a movie. I can’t recall having seen him in anything else, but clearly he has massive talent, and I hope to see him in other works. It would be criminal not to mention Anya Taylor-Joy, Hollywood’s “It-Girl”, as Olga, a Rus Sorceress. She’s great in this like everything else she’s in, as you’d expect, and is fortunately leveraged for key plot development instead of simply being a love-interest.
My greatest fear for The Northman was that I’d already seen the whole movie within the few trailers they’d already released, a trend that seems to be growing. Strangely enough, it features a number of critical twists, some less subtle than others. My surprise in this is more attributed towards my presupposition that the movie would simply be a piece of “beautiful barbarous art” and not much greater, but I was proven wrong in the best way. These twists can be found not only through Bang’s performance but also Kidman’s, who like Taylor-Joy is rarely if ever disproven as an excellent actress.
The Northman charges boldly and unapologetically, blowing my expectations away. It won’t be for everyone, especially given the amount of violence, gore, and generally jarring narrative elements, but for those who love historical epics and key detail in production value, or with the inclination to throw ragers at 3am at Denny’s, this movie is hard to disappoint. 9.3/10