Robert Eggers please just keep doing your thing. After two horror film outings with A24 the defender of historical accuracy is back this time working with a bigger studio, a bigger budget and much bigger muscles. The Northman written by Eggers and acclaimed Icelandic author Sjón is loosely based on the tales of Amleth which yes would go on to inspire the Bard to write Hamlet. While this story may have been adapted many times in several different fashions there are numerous refreshing takes from Eggers feels like it is being given to us by someone who finally gives a damn. In a time where taking risks is far from the method of studios credit where credit is due and thankfully there are still those willing to go for it, it also really helps when you have the best leader in charge.
North Atlantic 915 A.D. the perfect time for young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) to become a man. When his father King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke always giving 100 percent) returns from war he knows now is the time to give his son the ultimate “man up” talk. He does this in the form of a hallucinogenic dancing and hallowing at the moon ritual all led by Heimer the Fool (Dafoe wild as ever). It is the film’s strongest moment that perfectly captures the rest of the two hours and ten minutes that remain. The notion that only great men will die by their sword and see the gates of Valhalla. Amleth’s life is set for him, if the time ever calls for it, he will avenge his father, save his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman twisting the damsel in distress role) and kill anyone who causes him or his family pain. Well, it doesn’t take long for this possibility to become a reality. Amleth’s dangerous uncle Fjölner the Brotherless (Clae Bangs) kills Aurvandil, captures the Queen and causes Amleth to escape his village and go on a much needed journey where he recites his vengeful duties as if he’s speaking to himself in the mirror. After 20 years of practicing the same speech Amleth (played now by a beastlike Alexander Skarsgård) has fully embraced the wolf that lives inside him. Skarsgård beautifully does what so many actors continue to fail to do, he commits completely to the role mind and body. As he screams and extends his muscles creating a monster that cannot be chained down Skarsgård acutely displays all the pain Amleth has endured while creating a new level of both frustration and ignorance.
The brutality that men can display lives throughout Eggers’ film and one can even argue it is a motif that exists in all three of his features. Where the father’s ager in The Witch was directed at the sins of his daughter, here Amleth’s anger is as strong as his denial. As a boy he was afraid of violence, but that fear was quickly ripped from him and turned into a constant determination to seek glory. An intense moment has Amleth and his band of violent men raiding a village in an almost playful like manner as they assault young women and cut the throats of any child in their way. All this occurs and shapes Amleth before he can even find his way back in the presence of his uncle and mother. Disguised as a slave he is aided by Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy just making everything look too easy) who has spiritual connections of her own that allows her to both defend herself and give herself over to Amleth. These two are clearly connected by something larger, but for the moment that connection is driven by Amleth’s revenge. It may be the films only heartening moments, but they are spread out enough to always feel welcomed and never misplaced.
Another thing that never feels out of sorts is the barbaric violence that inhabits all that exists in The Northman. Nobody turns away from the bloodshed and even when it begins to destroy Fjölnir on the home front he knows that violence itself will save him. The film’s strongest belief is never to criticize the destruction that men cause but to fully embrace the legacy (or lack of) it can leave behind. Where does it truly get you? Can glory can be reached and passed down to others or is it just something that only exists in the moment soon to be forgotten forever. While it is a heavy weight there is such a fascination and excitement that we have a filmmaker willing to take this on. Even When Eggers’ himself reflected on having the editing process for this film be a living hell, there does not appear to be huge sacrifices of artistic freedom in the final cut. The film is clearly a studio film which can come with negative impact (a few cuts here and there feel like they were done by larger studio hands) but there are so many glorious moments that will leave the average viewer with confusion that you can’t help but smile when they occur. Eggers never limits himself to throwing in some dreamlike sequences or a fart joke here or there (yea he goes there) that it is clear that the visionary has not had to sell his soul to give his creations a home. The Northman may ask less of its audience than Eggers’ other two works, but this can be seen more as a notion to allow audiences to realize if there is a filmmaker willing to put in the work then we should be more than accepting of taking it all in. That alone will bring a film true glory, and if Eggers deserves anything it is to be welcomed into the gates of cinema Valhalla.
THE NORTHMAN is now playing in theaters everywhere