MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Epic Historical Action Drama/Stars: Alexander Skarsgård, Oscar Novak, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, Willem Dafoe, Kate Dickie, Gustav Lindh, Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson, Murray McArthur, Ian Whyte, Katie Pattinson, Ian Gerard Whyte, Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, Doa Barney, Olwen Fouéré, Ralph Ineson/Runtime: 137 minutes
I think it can be safely said that when we finally make a time machine an exciting reality, we are going to look back and realize that from a cinematic perspective the slices of cinema helmed by Robert Eggers actually were wonderful prototypes for that machine even if we didn’t exactly know it at the time. I say this because if you take the time to watch his debut film, 2015’s The Witch, you will find yourself watching a movie that astonishingly lets us take a look at 1630s New England as if we never left it in the first place (arguments aside that in some ways we never have). By the same point of view, you can also say that Eggers’ 2nd film 2019’s The Lighthouse accomplishes the same thing by showing us the same (for all intents and purposes) geographic area from The Witch, but just moved the timeline forward about 260 years. Ultimately though perhaps the best thing about both of these slices of cinema is how they are drenched in realism even when taking a turn for the otherworldly in certain aspects be it witchcraft or maritime superstitions. With that in mind, this now brings us to Eggers’ latest slice of cinema, and movie I am reviewing for you today, The Northman and I can safely say that this film is once more able to copy his first two movies in terms of that absolutely fantastic dive through time even if in this one we are able to hear the language of Old Norse and comprehend it in perfect English. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that this slice of cinema is also just as riveting as Eggers’ first two efforts due to his wonderful ability to blend the aforementioned realistic aesthetic together with a compelling genre-appropriate narrative. Suffice it to say that in terms of cinematically adapting a very important myth from Viking folklore, Eggers and his creative team have managed to give us a ruthless and visceral saga of vengeance with some truly potent stakes while also taking the time to show us the cost that devoting your life to an act of revenge can have. Suffice it to say that in many respects this slice of cinema is not only riveting in the best way, but it is also one that is beautifully shot, extremely well-constructed behind the camera, and finds its viscerality matched beat for beat by a collection of phenomenal efforts from a powerhouse cast which is being spearheaded by Alexander Skarsgård who gives easily one of the if not the most definitive performance of his career to date.
The plot is as follows: The alleged inspiration for, of all things, Hamlet by Shakespeare (which also makes this the inspiration for The Lion King in a weird way), The Northman is the legend of a Norseman by the name of Simba ehhh Amleth and gets its riveting yarn underway in the Pride Lands ehhh the North Atlantic in the long-ago year of 895 AD as we see our protagonist is a young man who is eagerly waiting for the long-awaited return of King Mufasa ehhh Aurvandil War-Raven who also happens to be his dear ol’ dad. We soon learn that the much-loved king has been engaged in a fierce war for the vast majority of our young hero’s life up to that point hence his absence. However upon making his way home and reuniting with his loving and faithful Queen Sarabi ehhh Gudrún, we see the King vow to make up for lost time with his boy and takes it upon himself to usher him into that interesting time in one’s life known simply as adulthood. We soon see that the pair, much like Mufasa and Simba, really do manage to form a fairly cohesive attachment to one another albeit one that also comes equipped with the caveat that there is a vow of revenge should dear ol’ dad be cut down by an enemy attached. Of course, it should also come as no surprise to tragically learn that the time between father and son is cut short when our hero’s scheming uncle Scar ehhhh Fjölnir makes the choice to engage in some serious backstabbing and thus partners up with a tiny yet volatile group within the kingdom to viscerally butcher the king. Of course, it should also come as no surprise to learn that this group also aims to bump off our hero as well, but *surprise surprise* our young prince manages to get away though not before cutting off one of the traitor’s nostrils. Yet despite our hero being assumed to be deceased, we see that in actuality he has managed to commander a boat and headed for safer shores, but not before vowing to get vengeance for his dad, rescue his mom, and butcher his uncle for his treachery. Years and years later we see that an adult Amleth has now transformed into a brutal and bestial Viking that is part of a group that raids communities, takes people hostage, and then sells them into slavery (Hakuna Matata this most assuredly is not). However, in the aftermath of a particularly triumphant, and gruesome, pillage we see that our hero crosses paths with a blind seer who makes the prophecy that the time to achieve his desired vengeance is close at hand. Thus when our hero overhears that a group of captives are bound for somewhere in Iceland where they are to work for the very man he is seeking, we see our hero sneak on to a ship that is leaving and, with the aid of a self-proclaimed sorceress by the name of Olga, cooks up a scheme to hide and toil amongst the slave labor until such a time that he can reveal who he truly is and fulfill his vow.
Now right off the bat, I will say that in terms of work being done behind the camera that the musical accompaniment in this slice of cinema, as conjured up by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, is downright dynamic and on-point in how it manages to go from strings straight out of a folk song that manage to really convey the royalty of King Aurvandil as he comes home from combat all the way to percussions during more surreal moments that are so potent that don’t be surprised if they combine with the speakers in your local multiplex to really attempt to rattle your entire body as if every seat in the theater is a D-Box seat. More than that, we see that this slice of cinema’s musical accompaniment also goes a long way with the aid of some truly gorgeous yet haunting work from the cinematography department at making you really want to immerse yourself in the world of the film from the magnificence and vastness of the seemingly endless terrain all the way to the beauty of the Northern Lights on display in the night sky. A fact that is especially true in scenes such as one featuring a delightful Willem Dafoe as a clownesque shaman and that sees both King and Prince being on all fours and acting like dogs right down to howling around a fire whilst also having hallucinations of their ancestors. Yet intriguingly we see that the ritual vibe is one that manages to not just limited to a scene here and there, but rather seep into the rest of the narrative. Indeed we see that as a young Amleth makes his escape, he starts repeatedly uttering the vow of “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir” to himself. Yet when he becomes an adult however this statement is no longer a vow, but no more and no less than a crusade of the highest order. Yes it should come as no surprise to learn that this revenge scheme will wind up becoming a heck of a lot more complicated courtesy of some quite surprising twists that the narrative path through this film chooses to take. Of course by the time these setbacks show up on the horizon, we see that the idea of visceral albeit righteous murder is one that has taken on a spiritual edge to it courtesy of a collection of moon-adorned visions inspiring our hero to find a mythical item that will help him successfully get his revenge. As a result, the film has thus made even the simple idea of violence begetting violence to be one that is rooted in the spiritual world as well as in the “real world” to terrific effect. Finally, I am just going to go out on the widest limb I have gone out on in quite a while and say that no The Northman is not going to be a slice of cinema that anyone can pop a bag of popcorn, sit down, and enjoy. At the same time, this is easily not just the Robert Eggers slice of cinema that could acquire the biggest crowd, but also one that has the most in the way of dead bodies littered about. Indeed Eggers does a masterful job of not exactly hiding from us the truly visceral violent content that is scattered throughout nor for that matter does he omit on utilizing language that is both stylish and quite melodious whilst also throwing in some heavy mythological ingredients into the narrative mix. A situation that does prove to be a bit problematic especially with one scene fairly early on that is so full to the brim with important knowledge that if you were to unfortunately zone out during that scene you might spend the rest of the movie hopelessly clueless as to what is unfolding before you. At the same time though, that’s just Eggers for you. Indeed here is a man who yes you can casually watch his films, but that’s not how he meant for them to be viewed. Rather, he meant for each film he has made to be the kind of film that from the moment it snapped onto the screen, you had to give it your utmost attention in order to be swept into it. Suffice it to say that with The Witch, The Lighthouse, and now this Eggers has more than shown that he is worthy of both my full and undivided attention and yours as well….provided of course you are the particular audience for the kinds of films this undeniable talent gifts the land of movie magic with.
Now the other big reason that this slice of cinema works on the potent and visceral level that it ultimately does is due to the powerhouse cast that is assembled and to no surprise they all manage to do truly magnificent work. This starts with, in the lead role, Alexander Skarsgård who gives easily the best performance he has ever given in this slice of cinema. Indeed Skarsgård does a terrific job at being a brilliant mix of both sheer muscle to say nothing of anguish as this guy who is less a human being and more like a Norse Terminator who, much like the Terminator in the 2nd Terminator, actually ends up acquiring humanity as he uncovers reasons to live his life besides getting brutal vengeance on his murderous uncle. Suffice it to say that it is not as easy of a part to play as you might be thinking, but Skarsgård with a wonderful mix of beast mode, solemnness, and regret about him manages to nail it hook, line, and sinker in the best way possible. As for the rest of the cast in this they manage to rise to the level set by Skarsgård beautifully. This starts with Anya Taylor-Joy who is both magnetic and downright bewitching (pun intended) in her role of Olga. Indeed Joy does a beautiful job at giving us a character who yes is very much the yin to Amleth’s yang in many respects, but who also is very much her own person through and through. Suffice it to say that it’s another terrific performance from a young actress who has quickly become a top-notch talent in the industry. Beyond this dynamic duo, this slice of cinema also comes equipped with terrific work from such dignitaries as Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe, but especially so from Nicole Kidman and Claes Bang as two characters that I think you will need to see this slice of cinema more than once in order to fully comprehend. This is because Bang as the villainous Fjölnir provides the film with a turn in this that is very low-key and restrained yet ultimately reveals that despite his villainous actions this guy has his own issues he is grappling with. Kidman on the other hand may also portray her character of Queen Gudrún with a similar degree of reservation at times, but she also gets a few moments where she just cuts loose. Suffice it to say that it is one of these moments where we finally get to see who this woman truly is on the inside that makes for both a terrific showcase for Kidman’s talent as an actress to say nothing of one of the finest scenes in the entire film.
All in all I know I said previously that this slice of cinema might not be for everyone, but as far as I am concerned I can honestly say I love the absolute heck out of this movie though in all fairness I also loved Eggers’ prior two films as well so I might be just a tad bit biased in that respect. Jokes aside however, the slice of cinema that is The Northman may be one to walk the line between riveting visuals rooted in the surreal and blood-drenched action beats, it is also one that at the end of the day also serves as a cautionary tale about how fruitless it can be to permit your life to be propelled onward only by a passionate rage that is set against enough beautiful Norse backdrops that I wouldn’t be surprised if Odin himself is looking down right now and smiling from ear to ear with approval. Suffice it to say that yes there are a few teeny tiny little flaws to be found with this slice of cinema. Yet even with the aforementioned flaws in play, The Northman is still able to utterly follow through on its own vow of Norse anarchy all whilst its talented cast and crew manage to utilize every single skill in their respective toolboxes to transform this film into a truly riveting nightmare made up of equal parts grit, surreal ritualism, and violence of the highest order that, again if you are the audience for, you should definitely check out. I promise you will not regret it. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Northman “2022” a solid 4 out of 5.