It’s been a while since we’ve had an all-out blood-and-guts battle orgy in which warriors outfitted in sackcloth and animal skins hurl themselves into the fray, wielding swords and blazing torches, shields, hatchets and daggers, while bellowing dialogue that mostly begins and ends with “RAAARRRGGGHHH!” There’s a lot of that in The Northman, a brawny fever dream which makes the freaky artisanal horror that put director Robert Eggers on the map — The Witch and The Lighthouse — look like Disney movies. To use a term from a ritualistic fireside chant where Alexander Skarsgård’s Amleth blurs the line between man and beast, this is the untamed “berserker” of Norse legends.
Navigating the leap from his modestly budgeted previous instant-cult films to this large-scale $90 million bloodbath for Focus Features, Eggers is nothing if not fearless. Benefitting again from the exactingly detailed work of production designer Craig Lathrop and costumer Linda Muir, the director conjures an immersive, pungently evocative atmosphere that catapults us back to the turn of the 10th century, a dark and viscerally violent past in which human savagery and the supernatural co-exist.
Ferociously elemental, energized and unhinged.
The inadvertently campy dialogue in the script Eggers co-wrote with Icelandic novelist and poet Sjón (Lamb) quite often prompts giggles, and the Scandinavian accents coming out of the mouths of actors like Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy and Ethan Hawke risk bringing on a House of Gucci trauma relapse. It’s an audaciously bonkers movie that keeps threatening to careen off into some kind of weird no man’s land where Game of Thrones meets Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And that’s even before Björk drops by as a witchy seeress, outfitted in wicker work, seashells and beads.
But The Northman’s marauding energy holds you hostage and Prince Amleth is the hunky, heroically vengeful killing machine with a heart that Skarsgård was born to play. Longtime fans will get a kick out of him tapping into the cultural roots of his ancient True Blood vampire, Eric Northman, too.
The screenplay draws from both Norse myths and Icelandic family sagas, building on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The prologue takes place in the fictitious North Atlantic island kingdom of Hrafnsey, where King Aurvandil (Hawke), aka War-Raven, arrives home to much fanfare. The gash in his guts inflicted by a foe in battle prompts him to prepare the 10-year-old Amleth (Oscar Novak) to take over the throne, despite the objections of Queen Gudrún (Kidman) that their son is just a boy. Amleth’s transcendental initiation involves crawling around on all fours underground with his father, howling like wolves. Also, belching, farting, levitating and accessing disturbing visions via Aurvandil’s wound.
No sooner has Amleth sworn to avenge his father should he die by an enemy’s sword than the boy witnesses his murder at the hands of his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), whose friskiness with the Queen has already been joked about by the shamanistic court fool, Heimir (Willem Dafoe).
“Bring me the boy’s head,” Fjölnir commands his men, accompanied by the shrieking strings and pounding drums of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s hard-driving score. But Amleth, after watching the slaughter of male villagers, abduction of the women and the Queen slung over Fjölnir’s shoulder and hauled off screaming, escapes by boat. He vows to rescue his mother, kill his uncle and avenge his father.
A couple decades later, Amleth has transformed into a muscle-bound man harnessing the spirit of both a wolf and a bear. He’s rage personified, traveling the Land of the Rus with a pack of Viking raiders that seemingly never met a Slavic settlement they couldn’t plunder. But Björk’s earth-mother seeress recognizes him as the lost prince and reminds him of his fate. Learning that Fjölnir was driven from the kingdom he usurped and fled to a remote agrarian community in Iceland, Amleth boards a slave ship headed there to supply labor.
Anya Taylor-Joy plays a fellow passenger who knows a good hook-up when she sees one. “I am Olga of the Birch Forest,” she says by way of introduction, adding that while he has the strength to break men’s bones, she has the cunning to break their minds. Both get taken on at Fjölnir’s farm, where Olga gradually gains Amleth’s trust and he reveals his plan to murder his uncle and save his mother, whom he believes is only feigning love for her abductor for the sake of their young son (Elliott Rose).
Eggers’ films have shared a fascination with the magical properties of animals — a goat in The Witch (love you, Black Phillip), a cursed seagull in The Lighthouse. The occult fauna this time is wolf cubs and ravens, the former leading Amleth to find a massive sword of the undead, known as The Night Blade; the latter getting busy with their beaks when he’s tortured and bound late in the game.
The storytelling accelerates as Amleth gets closer to his goal, wreaking carnage among his uncle’s men and sparking fear of a “distempered spirit” in their midst. The plotting becomes more frenetic though remains lucid, even if there are one or two arch moments that had me almost howling like a wolf.
Gudrún’s reunion with the son she long believed to be dead should have been a moment of high drama. But it’s hard not to laugh when Kidman, wearing Daryl Hannah’s old crimped hair from Splash and sporting a Natasha Fatale accent, greets a mighty silver blade at her throat with, “Your sword is long,” before engaging in some incestuous flirtation. When Fjölnir suffers a grievous loss and screams, “What evil is this?!” Gudrún shoots him a wide-eyed death stare and snaps, “Behave!” like she’s a Nordic Austin Powers.
The romance between Amleth and Olga also has time to blossom during all this, complete with a post-coital respite in the woods right out of John Boorman’s Excalibur. There’s also an interlude on a flying horse ridden by a fiery-eyed Valkyrie (Ineta Sliuzaite). But even as Amleth ensures the continuation of his bloodline, his deathly appointment with uncle Fjölnir at “the gates of hell” remains.
That would be the mouth of an active volcano, where they fight nude, as any self-respecting medieval warrior would, though their digitally erased penises make them look distractingly like Ken dolls. I could be wrong, but their smooth groins in the lava light look more like the result of studio interference than prudishness on the part of the actors or of a director so intent on presenting a world suspended between life and legend in all its gritty glory.
The film is shot by Eggers’ regular DP Jarin Blaschke, with restless propulsion and with a textured feel for the dramatic landscapes, lashed by rain, wind, snow and ice, or coated with mud and ash. The choreography of the combat scenes — both the staging and the shooting, in long, unbroken takes — is mind-blowing. Also fully enveloping is the dense sound design, with Viking Age instruments like the birch horn and bone flute heard alongside the thundering elements and the chaos of fighting.
The Northman is certainly a lot of movie, and while its hysterical intensity at times veers into overwrought silliness, it’s both unstinting and exhilarating in its depiction of a culture ruled by the cycles of violence. The cohesion of Eggers’ vision commands admiration, as does the commitment of his collaborators, both in front of and behind the camera.
Skarsgård, who has been working for more than a decade to develop a film project rooted in his childhood love of Viking myth and lore, has never been fiercer or more physically imposing. Taylor-Joy, who got her start in The Witch, is beguiling as Olga weaves baskets and plots havoc. (Her parents from that earlier film, Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson, also make appearances.) Kidman is a hoot, juggling fire and ice in an enjoyably over-the-top turn. And if someone doesn’t cast Bang as a Bond nemesis or some other suitably elevated evildoer soon, then Hollywood just isn’t paying attention.
Whether you buy into Eggers’ insane epic, get high on its blood-drenched sorcery or roll your eyes at its excesses, the film makes you appreciate how seldom we get to see a big, noisy, brawling spectacle these days that’s grounded not in comic-book superheroes and villains but in culturally specific history. In other words, a work of bold imagination, not another offshoot of a familiar IP. That alone deserves respect.