Visionary director Robert Eggers established a name in making cerebral, divisive horror with just two films. Both The Witch and The Lighthouse are fantastic in their own unique ways, but in my opinion, The Northman is his indisputable masterpiece. While this one does not fall among the horror genre, the visual influence and atmospheric tension that Eggers does so well have been concentrated into their purest form. Relentlessly brutal, visually captivating, and impeccably cast, The Northman is a Vikings-style revenge film that presents foggy answers to its morally ambiguous questions. An unforgettable and captivating work that impresses at every turn, The Northman is nothing short of brilliant.
Running around two and a half hours, the film thankfully never slows its pacing, and one does not feel that runtime. Each piece of the narrative is vital to the greater whole. As its blackened beauty unfolds, The Northman’s immaculate attention to detail and fully-formed fantastical world help buoy its massive scope. We start this tale in the year 895, as young Amleth (Oscar Novak, The Batman) the Viking prince anxiously awaits his father’s return from war. King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke, Sinister, Boyhood) appears to be a warm and gracious ruler, but at his return he is gravely wounded. Aurvandill first tells Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman, Moulin Rouge, Big Little Lies) that the time has come for prince Amleth to take over the throne, and she protests as he is far too young. Nevertheless, Aurvandill begins a ceremony with Amleth to prepare the boy for becoming a man. He is taught to live in honor, safeguard familial bonds, and live without fear. Amleth cries at the sight of his father’s wounds, which will be the last tear he is allowed to shed in weakness.
This strange ceremony is the first host to creative, mythology-doused imagery. A jaw-dropping “Tree of Kings” that symbolizes the various threads of their Viking lifeline is first presented, and recurs throughout. With Amleth and Aurvandill pretending to be lowly dogs that must become men (“Do as I do,” father instructs son), the script’s grasp on their relationship becomes tangible. Tragically, Aurvandill’s brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang, Netflix’s Dracula, The Girl in the Spider’s Web), launches an attack, resulting in the savage slaying of the already-injured Aurvandill. As per their beliefs, Aurvandill will return with the Valkyries to their version of Heaven, Valhalla. Amleth is forced to flee, as Fjölnir’s crew invades his hometown and captures the helpless Queen Gudrún.
With Amleth on the run, he recites a mantra that becomes his life’s mission: “Avenge father. Save mother. Kill Fjölnir.” We flash ahead to “years later,” when Amleth (now played by Alexander Skarsgård, Stephen King’s The Stand, Big Little Lies) has grown into a bulky, ferocious man. To survive, young Amleth aligned himself with Fenrir, the sons of wolves, and has learned to channel his fury. We bear witness to a gory invasion of a town, and it is clear Amleth is not the same boy he once was. His fellow men are savage beasts that throw children and the weak into a barn and proceed to burn them alive. It is hard to judge Amleth when he has merely done anything in his power long enough to see his mission through to its bitter end.
In this very town, Amleth meets with a strange woman named the Seeress (singer Björk) who delivers a fated prophecy. Amleth must finally return to carry out his duty, taking a new mantle as a slave to make the long journey. Amleth then aligns himself with a volatile and fiercely intelligent young slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, Split, The New Mutants). It turns out that Fjölnir lost the very kingdom he overthrew not long after young Amleth left, and is now the lord of a vast farmstead with Queen Gudrún at his side. To take down Fjölnir, Amleth must assimilate himself into this farm, doing whatever it takes to fulfill his ultimate destiny.
Fans of the series Vikings will find elements of this film very similar to that show, including references to Odin, gorgeous Icelandic landscapes, and a weird secondary character (played here by Willem Dafoe) evoking Gustaf Skarsgård’s Floki. The Northman’s budget and filmmaking prowess allows it to transcend the limitations of network television. I have no doubt anyone who loves that series will also adore The Northman. Eggers has created a sort of traveling troupe of actors he worked with before, including Anya Taylor-Joy, Ralph Ineson, Dafoe, and Kate Dickie. Connections to other projects are fun to trace as well. Alexander Skarsgård previously played Nicole Kidman’s rapist husband in Big Little Lies, and now portrays her son. Many a joke has been made about this film sounding like a True Blood spin-off (Skarsgård played the role of vampire Eric Northman through the full 7-season run), but even the slightest doubts about his performance are dashed from the second his imposing figure makes its onscreen debut.
Alexander Skarsgård has never been better. This feels like a role he was born to play, and he even manages to pull double duty as producer. The fact that this project came to light bred from the conversations between Eggers and Skarsgård over simply wanting to do a Vikings movie makes it that much more special to behold. The ensemble cast is also cherry-picked with pinpoint precision, filling out the central roles with the perfect choices for the job. Anya Taylor-Joy continues a hot streak of phenomenal movies that will be hard to top, fresh off her stint in Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho. Her character, Olga, was one of my favorites in the movie, and watching Olga and Amleth toy with the unsuspecting villagers made me giddy. My third favorite here was Nicole Kidman, who has long since proved her worth as a timeless actress. For a character that could be one-note, her Queen Gudrún remains enticing and crucial thanks to Kidman.
Sorcery, sacrifice, bloodshed, and gorgeous scenery are on the chopping block for this gargantuan epic. Taking us to the Gates of Hell and back, Eggers has made a Viking snapshot inspired by the legend of Amleth that is sure to be seen as the ultimate version of this particular tale. With a crowd-pleasing finale and themes of cyclical violence weighing heavy, this dark and supremely fucked up movie is not for the faint of heart. The Northman succeeds at being every bit the wildly exciting, immaculately-filmed action drama of one’s wildest dreams.
The Northman seeks vengeance in theaters everywhere on Friday, April 22nd.