“The Northman,” an formidable deep dive into tenth century Viking fable by Robert Eggers, is many films without delay: Bold and delightful, bloody and fully bonkers, it marks a visionary and visceral excessive level within the post-”Game of Thrones” action-fantasy sweepstakes, whose predominant metric of success appears to be packing in as many beheadings, blood feuds and examples of medieval arcana as attainable into ‘twas-ever-thus commentaries on man’s inhumanity to man.
All these bins are dutifully checked in “The Northman,” with alternately spectacular and inane outcomes. Alexander Skarsgard, who conceived the movie with Eggers, performs Amleth, who was inheritor to the dominion of his father, Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), till his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) arrived on the scene. After witnessing his father’s brutal homicide, the dispossessed prince adopts a mantra he’ll repeat all through “The Northman”: “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjolnir.”
Somewhat on the nostril, however OK. For the subsequent two-plus hours, “The Northman” chronicles Amleth’s quest, which takes him from the north Atlantic to the Slavic Land of Rus to Iceland. Viewers who’ve famous the narrative scaffolding for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” can have a imprecise notion of the way it all seems. But there are nonetheless surprises in a movie that pulls from a variety of sources, together with good previous Sophocles.
The mom Amleth seeks to rescue, a Botticelli-haired queen named Gudrun, is performed by Nicole Kidman in a slyly subversive flip. She owns certainly one of “The Northman’s” most arresting reversals, in a scene that proves but once more why she is likely to be essentially the most adventurous actress of her technology. Even amid a jumble of accents that sound like they got here from all the homes of Gucci, the performances in “The Northman” are uniformly glorious, particularly in the case of Bang’s interloper and his personal entitled eldest son, performed by Gustav Lindh with nastily convincing menace.
Fans of Eggers, who made a massively promising debut in 2015 with “The Witch,” adopted up by the weird two-hander “The Lighthouse” in 2019, know the director is one thing of a fetishist: He’s fascinated by ritual, runic mysticism and bodily mortification, in addition to visible compositions that favor firelight, shadows and bravura digital camera work. The director has referred to as “The Northman” a cross between “Andrei Rublev” and “Conan the Barbarian,” and that high-low aesthetic could be very a lot in play.
Eggers channels nice Soviet filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky in scenes of astonishing historic element, affected person remark and hallucinatory strangeness. Early within the movie, Amleth and his father – performed with breathtaking ferocity by Hawke – participate in an initiation ritual that entails them crawling on all fours and howling like canine; the visions escalate all through a movie that at one level options Icelandic singer Bjork as a “seeress” draped in cowrie shells, feathers and wheat stalks.
As arresting and elaborate as the pictures are in “The Northman,” there are simply as many sequences that revert strictly to pulpy, B-movie kind. As an inheritor to latest movies equivalent to “The Green Knight” and “The Last Duel” – to not point out Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Valhalla Rising” – “The Northman” lavishly rewards followers of the swords-and-vandals style even when it leaves the remainder of us in bludgeoned, bemused awe.
Whether within the type of tribal battles, man-to-man fight or perhaps a transient recreation of primitive rugby, the grunting, bellowing and bestial impaling by no means stop in a world of birthright, honor and aggression that appears to have sprung from the imaginings of Robert Bly at his most febrile. I promised myself I wouldn’t use the time period “toxic masculinity” on this overview (oops), however that idea varieties an unmistakable ostinato in “The Northman,” which Eggers co-wrote with Icelandic novelist and poet Sjon.
Not solely does Gudrun exemplify a very edgy model of female energy and company, however Amleth finally turns into ambivalent about what he calls “the freezing river of hate that runs in my veins,” largely with the assistance of a sylphlike slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). “Your strength breaks men’s bones,” Olga tells him. “I have the cunning to break their minds.”
That feminist nod is however a punctuation level in a narrative that bemoans the struggling attributable to atavistic patterns of aggrieved and insecure males in search of to show their value by combating, raping and taking. It’s unattainable to observe “The Northman” and never consider Ukraine, the place one more variation on a timeless theme performs out in a modern-day Land of Rus with sadistic futility.
Still, as a lot as Eggers would possibly suppose he’s critiquing that cruelty and self-serving superstition, he indulges of their vicarious thrills with much more enthusiasm and voyeuristic extravagance. Blood, gore, honor and revenge will all the time be the hoariest staples of cinematic grammar regardless of how cleverly they’re undercut. Ultimately, “The Northman” isn’t nearly fatalism at its most epic and overwrought – it suffers from it, too. ‘Twas ever thus, certainly.