REVIEW: Robert Eggers crafts a visceral and scathing Viking epic in ‘The Northman’

Boyce Rucker, Staff Writer

Historical epics almost seem like a thing of the past when we look back at films like “Braveheart,” “Gladiator” or “Troy.” We see strong and vengeful protagonists face off against tyrannical forces in the name of honor, and in some cases abandoning their own honor. Robert Eggers’ latest film “The Northman” is a historical epic that ponders the cost of revenge and questions prophecy. Going beyond the scope of “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” Eggers crafts a grimly poetic vision of Viking mythology that is nothing short of immersive brilliance.

Opening in the year 895, Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is the son of King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) and Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). After Aurvandill returns from a long journey, his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) ambushes and executes him as Amleth looks on. Fjölnir overtakes his brother’s kingdom and takes Gudrún as bride while Amleth is presumed dead after evading capture. Amleth vows to avenge his father, save his mother and kill Fjölnir. After a band of Vikings raise him, an older Amleth returns to Iceland to fulfill his vow of vengeance with the help of Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a woman who claims to be a sorceress. Mysticism, prophecy and brutality encompass Amleth’s quest for vengeance.

Though the film may seem like an original story to modern audiences, it will surprise some to learn of the story’s deep roots in Norse mythology spanning thousands of years. The film shares the same story beats as Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” but it is not simply a retelling. Amleth’s story ties back to Scandinavian legend, in which the figure is the base inspiration for the Hamlet character. The film is a modern retelling of the myth that pays off greatly, advancing the story with layers of complexity. 

Eggers and his co-writer, Icelandic poet Sjón, make Amleth’s journey a spiritual one as much as it is a brutal one. Amleth alternates between savage violence and calculated plotting to deliver vengeance against his uncle. Amelth is not a straightforward hero by any means, nor is he meant to be one. The film detours from the predictable route that the typical revenge story would take. We soon question if Amleth is pursuing pure-driven vengeance for his father’s betrayal or if it’s because he is beholden to his oath and the prophecy that the seeress (played by Icelandic singer Björk) tells him will come true. It is satisfying to see Amleth progress toward his revenge, but the film acknowledges the viscous collateral damage to those around him.

The film’s spectacular visuals make each scene memorable regardless of how much or how little action there is. The film projects cold and atmospheric dread through a desaturated color scheme that drives home the bleak feeling of the Viking era. As the film alternates between grounded and fantastical elements, we get a blend of richly abstract scenes. The camera tracks the action as it starts, dropping us into the Icelandic landscape while giving us the chance to admire the natural scenery or gaze at the explosive violence. Surrealist imagery also adds to the visionary set pieces, depicting a healthy dose of mystical elements that never feels out of place with the film’s groundedness. 

The film’s action sequences are something to behold as well. Almost every encounter in the film ends with grisly bloodshed that outdoes the level of violence from Eggers’ horror films. The fight choreography seems impressively faithful to what sword battles from the Viking era might actually look like. Each sword clash feels impactful, and one slip-up from either party looks like it could mean a gruesome end. The film uses its action sparingly as we anticipate Amleth’s barbaric nature to come about at any moment. The performers pull off parries and strikes expertly, and in tandem with the camera, to make each fight scene seem like a weighty dance requiring strategy.

On the fantastical side, the film treats us to stunning visuals that tie into the mystical elements associated with Norse mythology. Mystical elements recur throughout the film with stunning visuals to accompany them, a standout being Amleth’s encounter with the seeress. Björk is completely unrecognizable in the role as her eerie appearance, achieved through makeup and shadowy lighting, plays into the film’s surrealist elements.

Throughout its duration, too, the film plunges deep into Norse mythology and history to forge this darkly intimate revenge tale. Eggers strives for period accuracy through strong attention to detail and authenticity. Such details can be found in the dialogue’s reference to figures like Odin, the characters’ costume designs and the Berserker vikings’ fighting strategies. Eggers further amplifies the authenticity with his use of practical effects and minimal CGI, devising the aforementioned action sequences to plunge us into the Viking landscape. Even the Viking longship from one noteworthy scene is made from real wood and nails, and its travel down the river shot authentically. This is one of the many instances where we see Eggers paying tribute in the film. Countless moments call back to Norse mythology and history, but it takes the keenest of eyes to pinpoint every single detail. One thing that viewers will certainly walk away with is astonishment at the film’s visual presentation.

Skarsgård takes on a powerfully demanding role as Amleth. The character’s anguish and ferocity is something that’s hard to imagine anyone other than Skarsgård portraying. Skarsgård’s physicality plays into the monstrous brutality we see Amleth carry out on screen. The character’s spiritual drive for vengeance shines through Skarsgård’s performance. Every penetrating stare and line of dialogue delivered in frankness gives us a peek into the character’s psyche. Skarsgård’s performance is comparable to other loner characters like Ryan Gosling as the Driver in “Drive” and most recently, Robert Pattinson’s Batman. The entire cast is remarkable, particularly Bang, Taylor-Joy and Kidman, but it’s hard to argue that the film would be as great without Skarsgård in the leading role. Skarsgård held numerous roles in TV and film over the past ten years, but this may be the one that seals him as an incredible actor.

“The Northman” is a masterful film for Eggers that showcases his capabilities with a greater budget than his previous works. Despite going from A24’s niche distribution to major studio backing from Focus Features, Eggers maintains the artistic flourishes that made his first two films worthy of acclaim. This film is an unforgettable experience that will stay with viewers for some time after watching.