The Greatest Viking Movie Ever Made Is Called The Northman

In the leadup to the much awaited Robert Eggers movie The Northman, one question was asked consistently by fans on social media: Could Robert Eggers make a big budget movie and not compromise the unique directorial vision that made his first two films (The Witch and The Lighthouse) so extraordinary?

Eggers’ fans now have an answer, and that answer is a resounding and unqualified “yes.”

While The Northman is steeped in Norse lore—as one might expect—this tale of a prince’s revenge against the uncle who killed his father, usurped the throne, and made off with his mother has its most obvious roots in Shakespeare. (Just take a second to rearrange the letters in Prince Amleth’s name and, well, do you even need a second?) There are also echoes of Macbeth and even a bit of an Arthurian touch in the guise of a magical sword.

Above all, though, this is a Robert Eggers film. From the first moments of the prologue as the victorious king Aurvandil (played by an almost unrecognizable Ethan Hawke) returns to his wife (Nicole Kidman) and young son, you can sense that Eggers touch where sequences feel both mythical and hyper-realistic at the same time. You can practically feel the chill of winter in your bones and the touch of light snow on your face in the opening shots.

Admirers of his work will be pleased to know that Eggers doesn’t compromise any of his trademark weirdness either, as the supernatural touches Eggers is known for are in abundance here. As the King takes his son off to a very strange ritual (led by the great Willem Dafoe as a kind of shaman) where the two of them howl and eat like dogs while expressing their gastrointestinal fortitude… let’s just say that while watching this film, you most definitely aren’t in Kansas anymore. In the first third of the film, we are treated to a cameo by none other than Bjork, as a mystic seer who gives Amleth a glimpse of his future. 

It gives away almost nothing to say that in short order the king is dispatched by his brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang) and the young prince is on the run. “I will avenge you, father; I will save you, mother; I will kill you, Fjolnir” the boy repeats like a mantra as he rows out to sea. 

The film then flashes forward several years to where we find a grown Amleth taking part in the rape and pillaging of a village with a new clan of Vikings. Here, Amleth learns of his uncle’s new whereabouts, changes his appearance, stows away on a boat headed for Iceland, and takes on the guise of a slave to get close to his treacherous uncle.

Amleth finds a partner in vengeance, as well as a lover, in the form of Olga (the luminous Anya Taylor-Joy), who is not only clever and comely, but also something of a sorceress. The two plot Fjolnir’s comeuppance, but not without a measure of cruelty of their own. They don’t want a swift revenge, but rather a protracted one involving multiple fratricides and full-on mayhem.

As you might expect, Alexander Skarsgärd could not be more perfectly cast as Amleth. Aside from his sharp Nordic cheekbones and warrior’s body (I swear that his shoulder muscles have shoulder muscles), he’s also a very mysterious and morally ambivalent presence—“virtues” that the role necessitates. Skarsgard has had his fair share of success on film and on television, but in The Northman, he has found his defining role.

What’s also particularly effective in the film is how Amleth’s morality (which the average person would likely find abhorrent) sets the tone for the film in full. In the hands of another filmmaker, The Northman might have turned into a Viking version of Braveheart or Gladiator. Not so, here—Eggers has no desire to make things so conventionally heroic for us. Some actions taken by Amleth are truly horrifying, and in one blistering scene (which might be the finest moment in Nicole Kidman’s storied career), the avenging Prince learns that his mother may not be worth saving at all.

To avoid spoilers, I’ll say no more about this sequence between Kidman and Skarsgard, but do know: my eyeballs nearly popped out of my skull at Kidman’s vicious duplicity as she rages at her long lost son.

The final battle takes place in front of an active volcano in the dark of night at a place both nephew and uncle refer to as “the gates of hell.” And I’ll be damned if that description doesn’t fit exactly what you are looking at onscreen. In fact, the film’s conclusion brought to my mind (in feeling, if not in full metaphor) Apocalypse Now, not only for its savage brutality, but also for its extraordinary width of emotional and textural breadth.

When you watch Apocalypse Now, you are not just watching a “Vietnam film.” In much the same way, while The Northman is certainly a “Viking movie,” is also a remarkable work of art, so full of weight, imagery, and drama that it truly transcends its genre. The Northman stands alongside such classics as The Godfather, Scorsese’s Silence, and Malick’s The Tree of Life in that—to paraphrase Roger Ebert—what it’s about is not nearly as important as how it is about it.

To see The Northman is to be transported into a world so intricately structured, yet also so immediate and cinematic, that there is no “elevator pitch” that can fairly describe what occurs on screen. It is a masterwork of the highest order.

In fact, I would argue that if we want to discuss the film within the Viking genre at all, then we almost have to do so as if it’s the first Viking movie ever made. The Northman is so far above any of its predecessors (The Vikings, The Long Ships, Valhalla Rising, just to name a few) that to mention them together is almost an insult to Eggers’ accomplishment.

Eggers has stated in a number of interviews that the grief that comes with making a major studio film has taken a toll on him, and it’s not hard to imagine Eggers going back to smaller budget films to avoid such sturm und drang. Personally, I hope The Northman makes Universal enough money to more than recoup its reported 70-90 million dollar budget—though admittedly the film is so bloody (and bloody strange) that I find its commercial prospects hard to predict. If it does, then perhaps Eggers won’t have to fight so hard to keep his vision intact for another film of this size and scope. Because what he has proven with this remarkable Viking saga is that, when given the opportunity, he can most certainly deliver.

After seeing a great historical film epic, you’ll often hear critics and filmgoers alike say something to the effect of, “They don’t make ‘em like that anymore,” as they make their way out of the theater. But in the case of The Northman, that compliment would not do the film fair justice. Because the truth of it is, they never made ‘em like this.

Until now.

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