“The Witch” (2015) and “The Lighthouse” are two movies that undeniably bear the same marks of their creator, Robert Eggers. Both are rooted in Eggers’ interests in folk horror. Both show off a near obsessive level of period detail. And both feel completely original and unlike anything else that may fall close to their ‘genres’. “The Northman” is what you get when those very distinct creative signatures are used to tell a bigger story with a bigger cast and with a much bigger studio budget (in this case nearly $90 million).
Penned by Eggers and Icelandic screenwriter, poet, and novelist Sjón, “The Northman” is a brutal and at times bonkers Viking revenge epic based on the same Scandinavian legend that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”. Set in the North Atlantic at the turn of the 10th century, Eggers sits us down in a brawny and violent world, caked in mud and stained with blood. It’s a world where human savagery is more commonplace than anything resembling compassion. And where the supernatural and occult co-exist, allowing the director to veer down some dark and twisted paths.
It’s based on the legend of Amleth and opens up with a table-setting prologue that sets this revenge-soaked tale in motion. In it, 10-year-old Prince Amleth (played by Oscar Novak) enthusiastically greets his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) who is returning home from battle. Wounded and weary, Aurvandill decides it’s time to begin preparing his son to take his throne. With the help of the wild-eyed shaman Heimir (Willem Dafoe), Aurvandill leads his son through a gonzo ritualistic right of passage involving blood oaths, trippy visions and flatulence (it’s the first of several scenes sure to test mainstream audiences).
The next morning, after a night of unconventional bonding, the course of Amleth’s life is forever changed after he witnesses his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) butcher his father and kidnap his now widowed mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). With Fjölnir’s bloodcurdling command “Bring me the boy’s head!” still echoing through the thick air, Amlith flees by boat repeating to himself a mantra that will burn into his soul and fuel his hate for the rest of the film, “I will avenge you father. I will save you mother. I will kill you Fjölnir”.
The screen fades to black and many years pass. When the image returns we see a much older Almith (played by a hulking Alexander Skarsgård), now a member of a barbaric Viking clan who ravage the Land of the Rus like a pack of ravenous wolves. Here we get one of the film’s more spectacular moments – an incredible single uninterrupted take of the berserkers raiding, pillaging and slaughtering a Slavic village. The intensely difficult and complex sequence sees Eggers and his go-to DP Jarin Blaschke weaving their camera through the chaos and carnage, sucking us into the sheer savagery of the scene. It’s gruesome and unflinching. It’s also incredible filmmaking.
Upon getting word that Fjölnir has now settled in Iceland with Gudrún as his captive wife, Almith stows away on a boat posing as a slave. There he meets a fellow captive who introduces herself as “Olga of the Birch Forest” (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the two form an immediate bond. They arrive at Fjölnir’s settlement and are immediately put to work. But rather than killing Fjölnir and his men like a rabid beast, Almith begins a methodical campaign of physical and psychological terror, brutally picking off his prey one-by-one in the dark of night and sending waves of fear throughout the commune.
While Eggers is clearly the architect and his fingerprints are everywhere, the movie succeeds thanks to a fine collective effort. Blaschke’s camera not only captures the ferocity of the action, but also the beautiful yet harsh textures of the Icelandic landscape. There’s also the amazing period richness of Craig Lathrop’s production design and Linda Muir’s costumes. Add to it the pulse-pounding propulsion of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s score.
Of course you also have the cast ably led by Skarsgård. He’s an imposing mix of cold primal rage and quiet intensity. And though aptly (and somewhat comically) described as a “Beast cloaked in man-flesh”, Skarsgård also reveals Almith’s pain and vulnerability. Kidman is a blast, Hawke is as wily as ever, and Claes Bang is pure villain material. They all deliver in spades, but ultimately it’s the creative juices of Robert Eggers that gives “The Northman” its unique identity, from the impeccable detail and design to the wild flourishes and overindulgences. Now where will such a movie land with audiences? That’s the $90 million question. “The Northman” is out now in theaters.