Through three films, Robert Eggers has shown us a wide variety of grotesqueries, ranging from the haunted spirits of The Witch to the self-imposed depravities of The Lighthouse. His latest (and, by far, his biggest) film travels all the way back to ninth century Scandinavia, and the brutal reign of The Vikings. The Northman pulls no punches in evoking the period, showing the notorious pillagers in all their bloodthirsty glory, weaving their ruthlessness into its tale of revenge. The plot is boilerplate: a Hamlet-esque yarn about a man who must the avenge the death of his father at the hands of his uncle. A Nordic kingdom is stolen, and a young boy runs away, only to come back stronger and determined to bring havoc down on the man who dashed his childhood dreams.
The plot’s familiarity is intentional. The script (written by Eggers and the novelist Sjón) is actually based on a number of Nordic tales about fate and malice, specifically the character of Amleth who is the direct inspiration for Shakespeare’s vengeful, murder-obsessed character. In The Northman, Amleth is played by Aleksander Skarsgård, perhaps the most sculpted of our Hollywood stars from Scandinavia. His boyish charm is put to little use here but his otherworldly body is on full display, heaving spears, wielding axes, and killing men using his bare teeth. Eggers postures Skarsgård like a blunt instrument, bouncing him from scene to scene, killing people in increasingly creative ways, never allowing the audience to forget the actor’s virile physicality.
Of course, Amleth begins as a young boy (played by Oscar Novak). He is the heir to the throne and the doting son to King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) and his queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). His life is privileged, domestic bliss with a caring mother and a father committed to his lineage. At a macabre ceremony early in the film (led by a ghoulish jester played by Willem Dafoe), Amleth vows to avenge his king if anything should befall him, setting up a line of fate that he cannot escape for the rest of his years. Not long after (almost serendipitously) Aurvandill is indeed struck down. Shockingly, it’s his brother, Fjönir (Claes Bang), who commits the act, beheading Aurvandill, ransacking the village, stealing Gudrún, and claiming the throne to himself. The one thing he fails to do is capture and kill Amleth, who escapes into the sea.
Vowing vengeance and brimming with hatred, the young Amleth is discovered by a group of vicious Vikings, who raise him to become a muscular behemoth. He becomes a berserker, part of a merciless crew of warriors attacking unsuspecting villages and bringing them to rubble. Their efforts are swift but destructive, performed with a particular cruelty that leaves no doubt of their evil might. After ransacking a village in The Land of the Rus, the berserkers pick apart the survivors. Some will be slaves, some are raped, many are forced into a shack and burned alive. Amleth noticeably takes no part in the spoils, brooding alone, perpetually scarred by his traumatic past. It is here that Amleth is visited by a seeress (a single-scene knockout by Björk), who informs him that he will soon fulfill his destiny of avenging his father’s death.
A slave boat is said to be sailing for Iceland, where they will be sold to Fjönir. Seeking the opportunity, Amleth brands himself as a slave and stows away on the ship, awaiting his reunion with his dastardly uncle. Fjönir’s fortunes have fallen off. He lost his kingdom to another and is now merely running a farm in exile. Still, he runs his home with precise severity, a modest kingdom in its own right. Gudrún is still his wife, dutifully performing as the proud servant of the king. They even have a new son, Gunnar (Elliot Rose). None of this dissuades Amleth from his purpose: performing his revenge. He fights a zombie for the ownership of an all-powerful sword and then proceeds on a bloody campaign of terror on Fjönir’s farm. People are killed, disemboweled, chopped into pieces. The psychological warfare is a preamble to the main event: killing Fjönir.
The Northman‘s violence will catch a lot of attention. Eggers and Sjón show no interest in telling a moving hero’s journey, but are instead unflinching in their depiction of one of history’s most violent periods. That doesn’t mean that Eggers does not indulge in stylish fleets of fancy, getting creative in the ways that human bodies can be massacred. The young director doesn’t have a reputation for holding anything back, but The Northman is certainly his most visually ambitious project to date. Known for his obsessive research technique, he delves into the details of our past to only reveal how little difference there is between us and the most ferocious animals. This is made quite explicit throughout The Northman, as Amleth physically channels the bodily behavior of a fox to prepare his body for killing.
This film also reunites Eggers with Anya Taylor-Joy. She plays Olga, a sharp-tongued sorceress who is one of the villagers captured in the Land of the Rus. She’s on the slave ship that Amleth boards and forms a partnership with him at Fjönir’s farm that soon transforms into romance. Taylor-Joy had her breakout in Eggers’ first film, The Witch, and has grown into a major star since. Olga isn’t an exceptional part on its surface, but Taylor-Joy manages to mold it into something truly fascinating; understanding the scope and limits of her agency, she plays an instrumental part in Amelth’s fulfillment of his fate. In a film where even our protagonist is a bloodthirsty maniac, Taylor-Joy’s Olga provides a very important function: a cerebral character whose cunning and emotion provide a much-needed respite from the savagery.
A young-ish filmmaker with auteur-ish instincts don’t often get $70 million budgets for movies that don’t involve a comic book character, so if the excitement for The Northman feels overblown, that’s probably the reason why. It manages to hit the sweet spot of being rollicking entertainment while never feeling like it compromises its artistic vision (though Eggers has already complained about pressures from the studio to release a theatrical cut he doesn’t fully endorse). There’s a wider audience for this film than it might appear at first, as American audiences never fail to appreciate the spectacle of male barbarity. The Northman does occasionally interrogate its cruel view of masculinity, though never at the expense of its exhibition. It won’t want for wrongheaded misreads from conservative types. But this is an astonishingly made film and one that refuses to let you feel comfortable for enjoying all the carnage on the screen.
Directed by Robert Eggers