In merely two films, director Robert Eggers has positioned himself to being the go-to guy for traumatizing yet rich experiences in a period setting. 2015’s The Witch (or VVitch if you want to go by the poster font) saw a pious family in the 1630’s beset by internal conflict while creepy old women plot against them from the neighbouring woods, while 2019’s The Lighthouse concerns the deteriorating mental state of two men stranded in the titular building during the incredibly gloomy 1890’s – but for his newest, harrowing, extravaganza, Eggers takes us even further back into the turmoil of centuries gone by to give us The Northman, a vicious, historical actioner that takes us to the year 895 and deals with the Nordic legend of Amleth, a tale that was a source to Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Having recently returned to his kingdom after a strenuous time away conquering, King Aurvandill War-Raven reconnects with his wife, Queen Gudrùn and his dutiful son and heir Prince Amleth, but an injury obtained in battle makes him think how he should be readying his kid to rule should he ever tick off that highly desired, Viking bucket-list item, dying in battle. However, after a highly trippy ceremony in which an obviously high Amleth takes his vows, Aurvandill is betrayed by his brother Fjölnir, who relieves the king of his duties, right after he relieves his sibling on his noggin and young Amleth is forced to flee for his life.
Years later and the fresh faced Amleth has grown into a towering, brick shit house of a man and has become part of a Viking horde that’s been pillaging their way across Eastern Europe with the accumulated rage of a billion mosh pits. Aiding him being the maddest bastard he can be is the hatred that still broils within him and he longs to avenge his father and rescue his mother by hacking his uncle into mulch and he finally spies his opening when he finds out that some of the slaves they’ve just… uh, created, are due to be sold at Fjölnir’s kingdom. Disguising himself as a slave, Amleth hops on ship to Iceland in order to worm his way in under his uncle’s nose and aiding him in his bloodthirsty quest is fellow slave Olga who handily claims she is a sorceress.
Arriving in Fjölnir’s modest kingdom, Amleth finds out that his enemy’s son has grown into a vain weaking and his mother has produced her new husband a young son and he and Olga forges on with their campaign to destroy the kingdom from within with bursts of extreme violence peppered with the odd hallucination of a screaming Valkyrie or a zombie warlord, which all finally cumulates in a naked duel on the side of an active volcano (man, if I had a pound for every time that happened…).
I’ve been following Eggers’ career with great interest ever since The Witch used its sinister powers to blow my socks of all though years ago and after the fascinating detour of The Lighthouse which saw an unhinged Robert Pattinson beat a seagull to death, we somehow come to this, the director’s most accessible film to date. I’ve noticed that one of the more prominent reviews labels it as something akin to this generation’s Gladiator, which is a hefty compliment, but it’s actually not entirely correct. You see, while Ridley Scott’s epic was a modern crack at the sword and sandals pictures from classic Hollywood, The Northman feels more like a spiritual successor to Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto in so fact that it’s more like an action film that’s been reskinned as an art house, historical epic that goes all out for stark realism as hard as it can, even when it dips its mud caked toes into the fantasy realm with glimpes of Norse myths made flesh like Valhalla and Yggdrasil.
The result is something quite extraordinary, both stunningly opressive and incredibly exhilarating as the stirring visuals sear your eyeballs and the cast roar at each other like bloody maniacs until their vocal chords must have frayed like cheap dental floss. The tone of the film is utterly uncompromising with Eggers refusing to pull his punches when dragging us through this muddy, vicious world and it focuses on Amleth’s campaign almost purely from his point of view while choosing to not soften his jagged, pointy edges one jot. For example, we first meet the fully grown Amleth as he and his adopted, Viking clan get into the bezerker head space needed to obliterate an entire village with maximum ferocity and as he stalks between the huts, giving anyone an extra axe-hole who dares challenge him while the measured camerawork hints at the atrocities being committed in his wake. It’s essentially the role Alexander Skarsgård was born to play, utilising that rumbling voice, chiseled physique and impossible V-line far better that he did in the Legend Of Tarzan and it’s his performance that’s the growling engine that powers the rest of the film. The rest of the cast rise to meet him with Eggers regulars Anya Taylor-Joy and Willem Dafoe going all out as a determined sorceress and mental man-witch respectively. Elsewhere, Ethan Hawke sounds like he’s been gargling razor blades in order to play Amleth’s doomed father, but its Nicole Kidman who surprises the most as she paces herself among all this insanity only to join in wholesale to unleash a twist that involves some very un-Nicole Kidman like behavior – something that’s truly impressive in a movie that also features an eyeless Björk as a priestess.
The movie could be read as a musing on the extreme masculinity of myth as we cheer Amleth on in his unrelenting path to right the wrongs done to him when – apart from the murder of Aurvandill – his uncle doesn’t truly seem to be any more brutal a man than our hero is and the movie ramps up the violence to magnificently macho levels in order to give the appropriate weight to this collision course that’s seemingly been pre-ordained by the gods. How macho are the levels, I hear you ask: well, aside from the basic limb-chopping you usually get in these sorts of movies, there’s a gruesome running joke about a noseless soldier, some impressive body horror involving the sewing together of slain bodies, oh, and Revenge Of The Sith has lost it’s two dudes fighting on a volcano privileges thanks to The Northman having its combatants outdo the scrapping Jedi due to them brawling to the death, butt-ass naked, mere feet from the bubbling magma.
A truly memorable experience that’s as brutally beautiful as a historical epic should be, the mind truly boggles as to where Robert Eggers’ career will take him next. But until the gods finally fill us in on his future, The Northman ensues that this visionary director will boldly remain Viking of the hill.