Join the discussion on

" Would you please stop treating me like a victim "
— Ashley Judd, Kiss the Girls

MRQE Top Critic

King Lear

King Lear is easier to appreciate than to like. —Marty Mapes (DVD review...)

King Lear mounts his castle for the last time

Sponsored links

The Northman offers moments of singular vision and intensity, but the story spends too much time in the land of the familiar.

Onward

Alexander Skarsgard is Amleth
Alexander Skarsgard is Amleth

It’s a good sign a movie director is on an upward trajectory when each successive project attracts a bigger and bigger A-list cast. Such is the case with Robert Eggers, who’s carving a niche in creating ambitious – yet still independent — productions. His first feature, The Witch, starred Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Ineson. Then came The Lighthouse starring Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson; it was a crafty, moody movie shot in black-and-white and in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio that was a creative triumph.

Now, Dafoe returns in The Northman, along with a stunning array of talent that includes Alexander Skarsgard (The Legend of Tarzan), Ethan Hawke (Gattaca), Nicole Kidman (Moulin Rouge!), Claes Bang (Burnt Orange Heresy) and multi-hyphenate talent Björk.

And, in keeping with the remarkable drive of his previous features, Eggers’ latest outing is a wildly aggressive look at Viking mythology. At the very least, it’s an examination of how anti-woke civilization has been through the centuries. It’s the most toxic of all testosterone as men roar with righteous rage on the bloody battlefield and prove their worth through rites of passage that involve a transformative burp or fart.

This is a brutal tale of conquest and slavery, plundering and pillaging. One clan’s victory is another clan’s defeat in this vicious circle of life.

While The Lighthouse was a psychological thriller filmed in the limited constraints of the titular environment, The Northman follows a violent tale as old as time, one that blends some of the energy of Highlander with Gladiator’s focused center of a singular man looking to right wrongs. The Northman’s story spans decades and covers a fair amount of physical turf.

Coldheart

It wasn’t until Eggers visited Iceland in 2015 when he finally appreciated the opportunity to be had in making the definitive Viking movie. Couple that with a lunch with Skarsgard and Northman took a huge leap toward reality. Ultimately, Eggers wrote the screenplay in collaboration with Sjón, an Icelandic poet and novelist.

That’s a great backstory for a movie yet to be and it’s an understatement to simply say Eggers is one of the most interesting directors working today.

The problem is — even with all the lofty ambitions — The Northman sputters while playing out as something like Werner Herzog meets Conan the Barbarian. It’s a cold, tedious journey to redemption that — while mining Viking history, lore and mythology — ultimately feels very familiar.

A king (Hawke) is betrayed and murdered by his brother (Bang), who in turn abducts the queen (Kidman). That leaves the king’s young son to fend for himself. It takes decades to fulfill his destiny, but Amleth (Skarsgard) follows the tried-and-true trajectory of falling from royalty to peasantry, toiling as a slave, but all the while quietly maneuvering into a place of world-changing influence.

As conventional as the story may be, The Northman infuses it with some cool scenes of mysticism and wizardry. Notably, Björk appears as a seeress, decked out in a wild, bewitching outfit that would certainly outshine her infamous swan dress on the red carpet. Pair that with Ingvar Sigurdsson (Everest) as a male witch and Dafoe’s jester and The Northman hits some high points for creating a fresh sense of time and place that tears the movie out of the territory of the ordinary tale of foretold revenge.

While on his quest, Amleth meets Olga (Taylor-Joy) and together they forge a relationship. Olga makes an interesting observation: she has the cunning to break the minds while Amleth has the strength to break the bones. That’s a great team-up if ever there was one, but while it’s somewhat realized, it isn’t brought to a particularly revelatory fruition.

Last Tear Shed

Ethan Hawke is King Aurvandil War-Raven
Ethan Hawke is King Aurvandil War-Raven

The slow, methodical revenge tale is typically a satisfying staple of the movie diet. One of Northman’s best scenes features Hawke giving some powerful dying words, “Strike, brother. Strike! But know that bearing a stolen ring makes no half-breed a king. Soaked in my blood, it will soon be sliding off your arm like a serpent. Your kingdom will not last! Let this misdeed haunt your living nights ‘til a flaming vengeance gorges on your death.” This isn’t Hawke’s usual turf, but he delivers those lines with some mighty grit.

It’s always energizing to see the downtrodden overcome enormous odds and vanquish the villain. Ultimately, that’s a key goal behind the story: inspiration for the downtrodden. In this case, that vengeance is rewarded with a trip to Valhalla in a movie moment that attempts to transcend all sense of time and place.

If Northman focused more on those eerie scenes of mysticism and that fanciful voyage to Valhalla, it would’ve gone a long way toward further separating Egger’s vision from the rest of the pack.

As it stands, The Northman is a noble effort, one that mightily pulls on Eggers’ creative forces, all the while teasing of something more waiting in the wings.