‘The Northman’: Viking Revenge Saga Rampages With Brutally Brilliant Effect

Director Robert Eggers’The Northman” feels as if it has left this century and firmly carried the viewer into some very distant past. Eggers isn’t merely making a “Viking movie.” What he has done is conjure another world so vividly even in its mindset. This film has no sense that it was made in the 21st century. Its characters truly feel as if they have no idea of what the future holds. This work of art breathes, thinks and yearns for revenge in a reality that is ancient and pagan. Few mainstream films are allowed to be this bold, combining hallucinatory imagery with visceral action. Eggers tells a Nordic revenge story classic in its accessibility, but fueled with a style that refuses to water down the material.

The action begins in the year 895. King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns to his kingdom on the Irish coast after carrying out a military campaign overseas. Waiting are his wife, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and young son, Amleth (Oscar Novak). Aurvandill believes it is time to begin passing the throne over to Amleth and partakes with him in an ancient Norse ritual. But before Amleth can rise further, he witnesses Aurvandill’s murder at the hands of the king’s own brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Amleth flees and years later, he is a rampaging “Berserker” Viking warrior (now played by Alexander Skarsgård) pillaging around the lands of the Rus (modern-day Ukraine and Russia). When Amleth learns that Fjölnir now lives isolated in Iceland with Gudrún, he boards a slave ship where he meets Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) and steels himself to extract bloody revenge.

If the plotting of “The Northman” sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because the Amleth story was a direct inspiration for Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” That’s more of a general fun fact. Eggers crafts a ferocious revenge saga with the acclaimed Icelandic author Sjón, whose surrealistic style no doubt fuels some of the movie’s more hallucinatory moments. Eggers himself has been acclaimed as a director of films of spellbinding ambiance. His 2016 debut, “The Witch,” evoked real dread with Goyaesque images. 2019’s “The Lighthouse” was a stream of consciousness trip that felt completely insane. “The Northman” is the filmmaker’s most streamlined narrative, though never lacking in his meticulous obsession for period detail. Eggers seeks to transport the viewer into his Nordic dream, never bothering with too much explanation. We are meant to be there. It is as easy to follow as any revenge saga, but fused with the anthropological richness of films like “Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors.” Aurvandill and Amleth engage in a primal ceremony in a fire-lit cavern, with a warlock watching over them. They snarl and howl. We don’t need too much explaining, we are aware we’re in some other age. 

While Vikings have been the subject of numerous movies before, and a successful History Channel series, even the slightly better films like “The 13th Warrior” focused too much on the classic, muscle action archetypes. There is plenty of violence and combat in “The Northman,” but it’s more surreal than phony. Eggers captures the mindset of the period as opposed to approaching it like an outsider. Characters speak in the language of the “Poetic Edda” and have no time for standard Hollywood romance. This gives the material an even more potent, genuinely mythological feel. Amleth falls in love with Olga, yet not in some sweeping adventure sense. He sees visions of her in his mind, makes love with her, but while bound to a ruthless society. He seeks to avenge his father and reveal his presence to Gudrún, waging a campaign of planned killings in the village now run by Fjölnir, sometimes leaving corpses arranged in ritualistic formations. To love someone in this film means to truly kill for them. Christianity as a new religion is barely a shadow, rumored about here and there. A Valkyrie charges ahead in the night sky with a war cry in Amleth’s visions, and we are tempted to believe that for Eggers, at least in the world of his movie it isn’t pure myth. 

Some of the performances in this movie are nothing less than possessed by the environment. The legendary Björk makes a small appearance as a painted seer and looks quite capable of casting a trance. Nicole Kidman brings regal strength to her rugged surroundings, while hiding a violent darkness in her stare. Willem Dafoe brings his maddened charm to his small role as a court jester, Heimir the Fool. All the mythic weight is of course on the hero, Alexander Skarsgård, who in his first scenes is nearly unrecognizable beneath the bloodied mud, wolf skins and long hair of a Berserker. He taps into pure barbarism in scenes where he bites a man’s face or screams his demands from a hilltop. There is a mind at work inside the savage, however, and his moments with Anya Taylor-Joy have a quieter tenderness. He would like to simply live in Nordic domestic bliss with her, but violence and brute settling of scores is the norm. Taylor-Joy, who communed with satanic forces in Eggers’ “The Witch,” is a bit too ethereal here. She’s effective, but can feel like a convenient, almost dreamy plot device to soften Amleth’s single-minded crusade.

The late great Ursula K. Le Guin, in reviewing Neil Gaiman’s popular book of Norse myths, wondered why authors attempted to romanticize Viking legends as if they could work as children’s tales. By nature, these timeless, fascinating narratives (at least the ones that have survived) are violently nihilistic. Eggers gets it and never really tries to apply modern morality to Amleth’s journey. In “The Northman,” to die in battle is glorious. Riding into Valhalla on a Valkyrie’s steed is what you should look forward to, not a friendly compromise. Fittingly enough, the movie’s great climax is set on the foot of an Icelandic volcano, with hellish flames and lava. Leave at the door expectations of a regular action-adventure romp when walking into “The Northman.” Eggers has made something unique in its attempt at placing you somewhere else. The music score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, as primal and bestial as the plot, completes the overpowering effect of this film. It’s soaked in blood, yet hiding a particular kind of eloquence, even as it hits you like Thor’s hammer.

The Northman” releases April 22 in theaters nationwide.