Robert Eggers' stab at a big-budget epic is his least interesting work yet—but still worth a watch.
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Director Robert Eggers has carved out a niche for himself as the guy who tells weird suspense tales set in specific historical eras, bathed in atmosphere and period detail. His first two features, The Witch and The Lighthouse, embrace historical authenticity while bending genre restraints to weave tales that feel simultaneously modern and eons old — impossible to have been made much earlier than they were, yet sounding and feeling like stories ripped straight from the mouths of the people who would have lived them.
His latest, The Northman — a $90-million Hamletian epic about an outcast Viking prince who spends his life building toward fated revenge on the uncle who murdered his father — continues this legacy, with some caveats.
Undoubtedly, Eggers’ penchant for thoroughly recreating the historical setting (about 900 A.D., Iceland), through production design and old language, is intact. I’ve not seen many movies about Vikings, nor am I an expert on the period, but if nothing else, The Northman feels incredibly authentic to its period and culture. The entire cast speaks in a thick Nordic lilt, though mostly in just-modern-enough English to remain comprehensible, while rituals and visions of Valhalla abound.
Where the film plays things safer than Eggers’ previous work is in the basic narrative and its execution. By design, The Northman is far more straightforward; it’s a classic revenge story, full of blood and screaming and the cursing of names. Likewise, its mega-millions budget implies a need to reach a larger audience, and as such, the film embraces action and broadly palatable story beats as modes of keeping you engaged. This guy’s father was murdered, his mother kidnapped, and his entire life taken away from him? Yeah, I’ll watch him kill stuff.
None of these are bad things; in fact, I remember being excited at the prospect of a more narratively conventional, potentially action-heavy Eggers film. I’m always excited when filmmakers I like opt to stretch their legs, especially when they’re being thrown more money to do so.
But it seems, both from recent comments he’s made and from the scant character and theming of the film itself, that Eggers found the task of making a sweeping epic both overwhelming and exhausting.
The Northman himself, Amleth (played as a boy by Oscar Novak, and as an adult for most of the film by Alexander Skarsgård), is the son of a murdered king (Ethan Hawke) and kidnapped queen (Nicole Kidman) who ran for his life after his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) betrayed the kingdom and took it over for himself. Years later, Amleth has built himself into a massive meat-tank designed for doling out destruction and death. He’s fueled by the lifelong mantra he began reciting the moment he fled his burning home on that rowboat: I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjolnir.
Beyond this pure and fiery motive, we see little else of Amleth’s personality — and, to be fair, that is largely in part because that is his personality. Skarsgård does a phenomenal job embracing the boiling rage in Amleth’s blood; you believe why someone would spend actual decades waiting to deliver the vengeance they’ve dreamed of. And hey, this simple characterization worked for John Wick, so maybe it’s unfair to complain about The Northman.
But John Wick also spent way more of his movie’s runtime killing people. Amleth’s warpath is lackadaisical by comparison.
Likewise, Amleth’s unexpected ally, an enslaved witch named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), is also underdeveloped. The only other major characters are Amleth’s father — dead in the early minutes of the film; his mother, who is in one scene before being kidnapped and not showing up again until much later; and his uncle Fjolnir, who, aside from the brother-killing and village-burning at the beginning, really doesn’t seem like all that bad a guy now that he’s settled into a peaceful life of sheep-farming. Well, not all that bad, aside from the people-enslaving.
The problem here is that Eggers wants to have his incredibly simple story and savor it to the last crumb, too. At 2 hours and 17 minutes, a film this dry on actual plot and developed characters needs something else to push it along. Between the few short action sequences and the occasional trippy (and admittedly gorgeous) dream of Valhalla, I’m not sure The Northman really has enough going on to justify its length.
A slow and relatively uneventful midsection is really what dulls the potentially sharp edge of this revenge tale. But once Amleth acquires a fabled blade and evolves into a vigilantesque twilight stalker wreaking havoc on Fjolnir’s farm village, the adventure picks up speed as it approaches its gorgeous final confrontation.
The film’s action sequences (and frankly, everything else) are very well-shot, though many moments feel strangely pulled-back in the execution of their brutality. The sound design is characteristically engrossing, though my experience was marred by buzzy speakers at the local AMC. If you have a chance to watch this in a Dolby Cinema, I’m sure it’s worth it.
By the end, Amleth’s clear-cut journey of revenge feels justified and convincing in its anger and conviction — even if it’s sometimes frustratingly straightforward and lean on character, without enough lateral embellishments to make up for it. The Northman is further aided by Egger’s rich atmosphere, and amidst the landscape of mostly halfhearted IP-driven blockbusters, seeing $90 million spent on an arthouse director’s sometimes-weird, sometimes-boilerplate take on a Viking revenge story is at least a little refreshing.
But if Eggers moves back toward smaller, stranger pictures after his trying experience with The Northman, that would be perfectly swell by me.