“The Northman” has aspirations, i’ll give it that. Robert Eggers movie will remind of so many classic epics from revenge tales that wear their tragedies on their sleeve (“Hamlet”, “Gladiator”), gritty action pictures with a visceral sense of their environments (“The Revenant”), and legends swept up in their own myths (“King Arthur”).
It stars Alexander Skarsgaard as Amleth, who as a young boy witnessed the murder of his father (Ethan Hawke), an Icelandic king, by his own Uncle (Claes Bang). Amleth escapes into exile but a vow he makes that he will come back, kill the Uncle, and save his mother (Nicole Kidman), has shaped his mind to the point where vengeance is all he can think about.
Generally this is your standard revenge flick but Eggers has surrounded it with so much ritual, spiritualism, and lore. A scene early where Amleth and his father bond over a shaman who gets them howling at the moon and connecting to their feral, animalistic sides sets the film apart but then a strong adhesion to prophecies, fate, and the savagery of viking life kinda take over. There is an emphasis on Viking music and dance, clothing and keepsakes, beliefs, and religion
That early scene is a precursor to the violent man Amleth will become but he will be given a choice here: to either choose hate or accept the love of a woman. That would be Olga (Anya Taylor Joy), a slave aboard a ship Amleth sneaks on to in order to get back to where his Uncle and Mother now preside. Olga has the power to do to men’s minds what Amleth can do to bones and, at first, will be pivotal to his revenge scheme.
This is a bloody, bloody film- at one point Amleth even kills a man by biting at his throat. It’s also a dirty, bloody, gritty film- much like a scene of gladiatorial combat featuring a game sort of like if rugby allowed for hitting players with baseball bats. The entirety of this world feels cold, grimey, and authentic- these people exist to work in the dirt and snow, to pillage, and as we learn later in the film, they are not afraid of taking hold of their own destinies- sometimes shockingly so.
Skarsgard makes for a dedicated anti-hero who leads with his brawn, even as the circumstances of his quest continue to shift. Joy is just as bewitching as she was in Egger’s “The Witch” but unlike that film, her character’s love eventually looks like a sort of salvation. Eggers also gets fiery work from Kidman and some top-notch stuff from Bangs, Bjork, as a seer, and Willem DaFoe, playing two roles as a fool, and later the Shaman.
Revenge stories are a dime a dozen but there is a reason that they work, and “The Northman”, in particular, is keyed into that primal urge. It’s a movie as motivated by violence as it is by the culture that so steels itself to greet those urges every day. It’s a bleak film- cast in colorless grays and sometimes only lit by firelight- but even that lighting gives these people a great ferocity that works in the film’s favor. It may not be the most original, but as passion projects go, it’s one hell of a trip into the heart of darkness.
Rating: 4 out of 5