Robert Eggers is an idiosyncratic filmmaker whose previous films, “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” have more in common with silent era movies and formal stage presentation than they do with the blockbusters that rule today’s box office. His latest, the violent Viking drama “The Northman,” now playing in theatres, has all the hallmarks of Eggers’ work, but despite the inclusion of old Norse language, mysticism and its occasionally psychedelic tone, it may be his most accessible movie yet.
When we first meet Amleth, the Viking warrior prince, played as a teen by Oscar Novak, as a muscle-bound adult by Alexander Skarsgård, it is the year AD895 somewhere in the North Atlantic. He is a child about to enter the line of succession to one day take over from his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke).
An unspeakable act of betrayal interrupts Aurvandill’s plans for the future, forcing Amleth to flee the only home he has ever known, leaving behind his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).
Years pass. Adult Amleth is now a fierce warrior with revenge on his mind. When the would-be prince and his band of berserkers ravage a village, the locals who survived the carnage are sold off as slaves. When Amleth learns the purchaser is the man who betrayed his father, he disguises himself as one of the prisoners with a plan to get close to the man who destroyed his life and family, and earn back his honor. “I will haunt this farm like a corpse returned from the grave,” he declares.
On the journey he meets Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), a sorceress who becomes his ally and love interest. “You are still a beast cloaked on man flesh,” she tells him. His strength, she tells him, will break their bodies. Her cunning will break their minds.
Amleth’s journey is also a spiritual one, driven by mysticism and the words of a whispering seeress played by Björk. ““Remember for whom you shed your last teardrop,” she says, sending him off on his mission. Eggers seamlessly blends the supernatural and the nature until the lines blur into one trippy whole.
“The Northman” is based on the Scandinavian legend that influenced William Shakespeare‘s beloved “Hamlet.” It’s a familiar story of payback, violent, visceral and vengeance-filled, but Eggers’ singular vision, and fondness for pathetic fallacy, ancient symbolism and psychedelia, make it a singular experience.
And don’t forget the violence. So much violence.
Amleth chews one man’s neck, killing him in a memorably bloodthirsty fashion, and that is before the revenge story comes into play. Eggers amps up the brutality, shooting long scenes in unbroken wide shots that provide full few of the action. This ain’t Michael Bay’s frantic cut and paste. It’s full coverage, carefully orchestrated violence that drives home the brutality of the battles. It’s ferocious, audacious—check out the showdown at the Gates of Hel—if occasionally unpleasant, stuff.
It’s not all fun and bloody games, however. The storytelling gets bogged down from time to time and Amleth’s frequent vocalizing of his mission mandate—avenge his father, kill his uncle and rescue his mother—gets old after a while.
Having said that, “The Northman” more than delivers on the director’s pure, primal cinematic vision. To Valhǫll!