'The Northman' Is Robert Eggers' Viking Masterpiece
It's a viscerally thrilling movie.
There’s a stench to Robert Eggers’ movies, almost like they are filmed in smell-o-vision. In one of the opening scenes of his new film, The Northman, a young Amleth, who will grow up to be Alexander Skarsgård, visits a court jester-slash-witch portrayed by Willem Dafoe, with his father, the King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). Performing a ritual, Dafoe asks, “prove you are not a dog.” Aurvandil burps. Dafoe’s Heimir smells it. That is all the proof he needs. The child farts in the same spirit. Later, the grown version of Amleth stands in front of a burning structure, having just pillaged a town. Bodies are trapped inside. The smoke fills the screen, and for a moment it seems like it fills the theater, the holograms of flesh and ash entering your nose.
Over the course of three movies, Eggers has made a name for himself with densely researched, meticulously crafted historical fables that defy their genres and period settings. In The Witch, he asked: What if the Puritan witch panic was infused with actual horror? In The Lighthouse, he turned a nautical seafaring tale into a black and white comedy of masculine egos gone awry. Now in The Northman, armed with a reported $90 million budget, he poses the question: What if a Viking epic was sick as fuck?
My flippancy is, yes, partially for my own amusement, but it also describes the feeling of seeing The Northman, a two hour and 20 minute saga flush with violence and mysticism. It’s a visceral assault of blood that lays the grime on thick, but is also deeply, densely spiritual. Eggers treats the mythologies he draws on with supreme reverence: By the end of The Northman, the audience has been so thoroughly plunged into this chilly world that the notion of Valhalla seems palpable.
Eggers and his co-writer, the Icelandic poet Sjón, borrowed liberally from the Nordic legend that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and the narrative follows beats. Amleth’s father Aurvandil is slain by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who takes his sister-in-law Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman, having so much fun) for his bride. Amleth escapes certain execution, and vows to “avenge father, save mother, and kill Fjölnir.” Years later, he remembers to act upon this promise after having been counseled to fulfill his mission by a Seeress, a perfectly cast Björk. (Who else?) He realizes his adoptive Viking gang has just enslaved a group of people who are to be sold to Fjölnir, now living in quasi-exile in Iceland. On the passage to this new land, he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who immediately sees through his ruse and eventually becomes his lover and partner in crime.
Plot-wise The Northman is deceptively simple, but to make that assessment you would be ignoring all the strange and eerie sense of detail and place that Eggers and Sjón bring to the screen. Amleth’s journey is rendered with such specificity that his quest is all-consuming for the viewer. When it takes disorienting detours—like when Amleth must battle a ghostly warrior to claim his Night Blade, a weapon that can only be drawn in the cover of darkness—you’re entranced but not shocked because you’ve already been embedded in the customs of this environment. The violence that Eggers puts on screen is rendered in a similar way. You never become numb to its shocking brutality, but you understand it as the way of these people.
In Skarsgård, Eggers has an ideal avatar for this adventure. The towering Swedish actor, naturally, has the Viking physicality—all sinew and muscle constantly covered here in dried blood—but he’s also proven himself over the years to be a idiosyncratic performer, one just as at home playing weirdos as he is fulfilling strapping hero roles that match his looks. That mix of sensibilities is at home in Amleth, a man with anger in his veins, who was once a child prone to idolatry and wonder. He’s matched with Taylor-Joy, reuniting with Eggers for the first time since they both broke out with The Witch. Eggers is particularly attune to the otherworldly qualities she brings to any material, and leaves you constantly questioning whether Olga is of this earthly plane, or something else entirely.
That question permeates The Northman in a way that is beautifully unsettling. It’s a sensory overload. Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke shift between night-shrouded sequences that are almost etched in black and white and moments where candlelight paints faces as if they were in oil. Eggers's camera hunts the way Amleth does in extended, virtuosic tracking shots.
You can almost taste the sweat and the salt and and the fire, grounding the experience in the tangible, but hovering just on the edge of every frame is the sense that there might be something greater at work. Is it Odin and his gods playing with these humans and their primitive ways? Or is it the hand of the filmmaker, keeping his captives at the edge of their seat? Whatever it is, it’s exhilarating.