By Erica Abeel
The Northman is grounded in a manically precise capture of the Nordic world of the 9th century AD, but refracted through the lens of a whacked-out visionary in a spew of eye-popping images.
After the revelation of The Lighthouse in 2019, I would have rushed to see any film by indie auteur Robert Eggers. Lighthouse is a bleakly hilarious account of two “wickies” manning a remote lighthouse (Willem Dafoe, Robert Pattinson in career-bests) who engage in a toxic power struggle that spirals into mutual self-destruction. As the teaser for my review of the film had it, “Nothing good happens when two men are left alone in a giant phallus.” With its brew of the historical, the mythical, and the paranoid, Lighthouse distilled a kind of madness I needed more of.
Now Eggers has come crashing back on the scene with The Northman, a rude, bloody, hyper-violent Viking saga like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s remarkable that Eggers not only conceived a film that posed such daunting challenges, but had the guts to see it to completion through the pandemic and clashes with the production company about creative control. (And speaking of guts, I’m afraid they make a dramatic appearance worthy of a mention in the credits). Northman is grounded in a manically precise capture of the Nordic world of the 9th century AD, but refracted through the lens of a whacked-out visionary in a spew of eye-popping images.
Set in Iceland in 895 AD, Northman revisits a quest for revenge, a tale as ancient as they come. An opening image of a volcano belching ash and fire sounds a thrilling note of foreboding. Young Prince Amleth rejoices as he and his mother Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) welcome back from the wars King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). The festivities include a nutty Viking-style bar mitzvah, as Amleth is initiated into warrior-hood by his father and court jester Heimir (Willem Dafoe). The trio tap into their inner beast, complete with ferocious growls and flatulence — no pickled herring here — and ingest a substance that accesses the spirits of heroic predecessors. As the king predicts his own impending death, Amleth vows he’ll avenge him. In one of Eggers’ many insane images, a pantheon of warriors descend as desiccated replicas hanging off a tree like Christmas ornaments — a detail that Eggers likely unearthed in Icelandic art. Credit his regular cinematographer Jarin Blaschke for translating these eerie findings to the screen.
In short order Amleth’s uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang, The Square) murders the king and kidnaps the queen. The boy evades his pursuers and sets out to sea in a rowboat. Cut to two decades later, and Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård.) is now a towering Viking hulk sporting a wolf’s head chapeau and powered by a single unwavering mission: kill his uncle, save his mother, avenge his father. If the set-up feels familiar, it’s because Shakespeare drew on the same ancient legend about Prince Amleth for Hamlet. Though Eggers’s ferocious Amleth could hardly be more different from the waffling Danish prince; nor would he have attended the university of Wittenberg unless they were diversifying by admitting wolf-men.
Amleth has signed on with a band of Viking beserkers who raid neighboring villages. (“Beserker,” I learned, is a noun, maybe even a trade.) From a seer he learns that Fjolnir has been dethroned and fled with Gudrun and his sons to Iceland. The seer is none other than Bjork, witchy as hell in blue lighting, and sporting a head dress of dangling cowrie shells as the ur hippie. After stowing away in a boat full of war prisoners, Amleth arrives on Fjolnir’s farm a slave, and poses as a loyal servant. En route he hooks up with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) who’s on direct dial to the spirit world. In the third act Gudrun confronts her son with explosive details that reframe the story, but Amleth remains undeterred from his mission.
At the center of all the mayhem is Skarsgård as Amleth. The actor’s bulked-up ursine posture, washboard abs, and bulging traps convey a Viking man-beast risen up from centuries past. It’s rare to see an actor project so powerfully with steely eyes and ripped physique — but language is beside the point: “my heart knows only revenge,” Amleth repeats.
Sidebar: to build those massive traps, Skarsgård. ate 3,700 calories a day and trained in the gym to capture Amleth’s “spiritual animals,” a bear and a wolf. Says his trainer Magnus Lydgback, “one look at him and you get scared.”
If I saw this correctly, Amleth rips out an enemy’s throat with his teeth; he also wins a Viking version of cricket, in which rocks meet skulls, and the victor is the man who still has his head on. Ancillary characters appear to be missing a nose, or peering with the whites of their eyes into the plans of the “norns” (the Viking weavers of fate).
A couple of discerning women friends have told me they’d just as soon give Northman a pass. So is this a film mainly for the bros? In fact, the female characters hold their own amidst the brutal exploits through cunning and visionary prowess. Kidman (always superb) delivers a barn-burner of a scene when she recognizes Amleth as her son. If Anya Taylor-Joy didn’t exist, Eggers would have to invent her. With her freaky wide-set eyes and beauty that belong to some otherworldly creature, she’s the ideal match for his sensibility. That said, yes, Northman does celebrate Nordic testosterone, casting the viewer back to a ruder moment when male brawn ruled land and sea. But the theme of unwavering obsession should resonate with any viewer.
Eggers has made himself a scholar of Viking lore and artifacts. The wooden boats plying the North Atlantic in a snowstorm, the head gear of toothy wolves, the rough-hewn, fire-lit Viking dwellings, accurate down to the last wooden peg, the mire and blood — all feel authentic as hell. For sheer beauty, add the craggy vistas of Iceland — and Ireland, where Northman was partly filmed.
Yet Egger’s fetish for exactitude never cramps his cinematic fluency. He’s partial to long takes that deliver a you-are-there immediacy. A spectacular sequence of the beserkers scaling a tall fence to lay waste to a village are shot in a single take with an on-rushing momentum. The standard approach would chop the sequence into several takes. Eggers pulls you into real time.
Equally remarkable is that Northman, the third work of an art house auteur, was bankrolled by a major studio for a purported seventy mil — numbers that are almost always attached to some numbing blockbuster based on a comic book action hero franchise. We got lucky. The guys who greenlit Northman clearly succumbed to the nuttiness and the magic. I mean, think of it, two all but naked men dueling to the death on the fiery lip of a volcano at the Gates of Hell! Where will Robert Eggers take us next?
Erica Abeel is a novelist, film and cultural critic, and former professor at CUNY. Her 2016 novel Wild Girls, about three women rebels of the ’50s, was an Oprah Magazine pick. Her journalism has appeared in the New York Times, Indiewire, and other major sites and national publications. A former dancer, when not writing she’s in a Pilates class or at the barre. Her new novel, The Commune, was recently published by Adelaide Books.