The Great White ‘Northman’

Immerse yourself in Robert Eggers’s blood-drenched, metal Viking Hamlet

Grab your fur pelts, join the drum circle, and howl at the moon: The Northman is masculinity as mythopoetic monolith, fierce and feral and doused in the color of dried blood. It’s an Iron John fever dream of sinewy vengeance and dynastic bloodlines, a Midnight-Sun ode to Icelandic lore, and a punch-drunk tribute to Viking valor. Everything about the film is relentless, from the pounding rhythms of its wailing soundtrack to its mud-caked, high-body-count massacres; from its obsessively detailed evocation of 10th-century Nordic semi-civilization to its single-minded need for rough justice. Exhaustion will also set in, relentlessly. But not before its hallucinogenic images leave a breathtaking sense of primal awe.

THE NORTHMAN ★★★★ (4/5 stars)
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Written by:  Sjón, Robert Eggers
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, Willem Dafoe
Running time: 137 mins

“I must die by the sword. I will die in honor!” growls King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), a middle-aged He-Man who recoils at the thought of living long enough to become a shameful greybeard. Why jeopardize his lionization at the gates of Valhalla? After an extended sea voyage, he has returned home to his North Atlantic kingdom, where awaits Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and his young son Amleth (Oscar Novak).

“He’s just a puppy,” Gudrún says about tweener Amleth. So, like any responsible dad, Aurvandill takes him to a holy sweat hut, where they both strip down, take psychotropic drugs and crawl around on all fours pretending to be dogs. They trip balls, guided by the court jester Heimir the Fool (Willam Deafoe), who apparently moonlights as a shaman. Heimir reveals the Tree of Kings during Amleth’s amber-fog vision quest—a surreal sequence into Aurvandill’s chest that illustrates their genealogy with bronchial flourishes—giving the prince his mighty sense of destiny. Good thing, too, since the duo gets ambushed as soon as they emerge. The usurper? Aurvandill’s bitter younger brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Amleth escapes; Fjölnir cuts off Aurvandill’s head and claims Gudrún as his wife.

Revenge! Years past, and the now-adult and still-stewing Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), taken in by a horde of berserkers, harbors a raging resentment that has only grown over the years along with his washboard abs and impressively jacked upper body. He channels the rage into first-rate marauding, slicing and dicing his way through countless villagers and even ripping out a man’s throat with his bare teeth. That, and also screaming with uncontrollable fury.

A witchy encounter with a Seeress (Björk, sporting a crown of wheat stalks and blacked-out eye sockets) tells him he’s fated to face his father’s executioner. Rumor has it that his wicked uncle, now known as “Fjölnir the Brotherless,” actually lost the kingdom he stole and fled to Iceland to become a sheep farmer. Turns out Fjölnir just recently ordered a boatful of slaves, too, so Amleth sneaks onto the ship and lets himself get sold into servitude to his uncle. And once he gets there, Amleth can plot Fjölnir’s death. Revenge!

The makers of The Northman proudly point out that its tale of royal fratricide was the basis for Hamlet. What they don’t mention is that their film isn’t nearly as rich with insight into the human condition or half as eloquent as Shakespeare’s take on the famously hesitant Dane. Robert Eggers almost myopically focuses his bedazzled filmmaking on testosterone-driven impulses and manly fortitude. He roots his narrative tragedy in this single-minded vision, one where Amleth stridently locks himself into a self-fulfilling prophecy of mutually-assured destruction. Is this the thematic takeaway—that forgiveness is a trait our hypermasculine forefathers sadly lacked?

It’s a muddled message, since Eggers is so busy reveling in his majestically earthy evocations of a dick-swinging world where nature commingles so fluidly with the supernatural. The film’s ferocity is a contact high, and its pitiless universe almost forgivable considering how Eggers renders it with such raw, mind-melting beauty. He’s a preternaturally gifted filmmaker, who previous film The Lighthouse was a macabre two-hander that was far more eloquent about men’s innate talent for self-immolation.

A woman is Amleth’s saving grace, a fellow slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). She’s the key to his future, one where he can sire new kings and new kingdoms. But why would her promise of peace be persuasive to a renegade berserker? He’s too busy hunting down a magic sword so he and his uncle can fight naked on a volcanic hellscape where fingers of molten lava belch around them. Can you even blame Amleth? That sounds kick-ass!

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Stephen Garrett

Stephen Garrett is the former film editor of 'Time Out New York’ and has written about the movie industry for more than 20 years. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer, Garrett is also the founder of Jump Cut, a marketing company that creates trailers and posters for independent, foreign-language, and documentary films.

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