Review: 'The Northman' a bloody, brilliant work of cinema, but not for everyone
Filmmaker Robert Eggers is one hell of auteur, whose mastery of his craft can no longer be ignored. On the heels of his last two films, 2015's "The Witch" and 2019's "The Lighthouse," he thrusts "The Northman" upon us. It doesn't just cut to the bone, it tears apart flesh, splatters blood in our faces and spits in our eye.
And while "The Northman" is an enchanting work of cinema and Eggers' most effective achievement yet, it reveals another through-line of with his work. All three of these films sacrifice story, narrative and cohesiveness, in favor of mood, authenticity and rawness. In other words, each are dazzling movies but all three - "The Northman" included - are so poetic and visceral that they don't connect in the way that they perhaps should.
Even still, you have to respect a movie - and a filmmaker - who has the audacity to thrust a movie upon us with such gore and violence, matched with grace and beauty. "The Northman" is at once a blunt object, pummeling us with brutality, and it's sharp like a knife, slicing through what is really a generic revenge tale, to reveal some ugly truths about our humanity and what lies beneath the surface.
The title character's name is Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) and his mission is quite clear...heck, he repeats it throughout the movie as a sort of reminder of the simplicity of the premise: "I will avenge you father, I will save you mother, I will kill you Fjolnir." These are the days of the Vikings, and when we first meet Amleth as a boy, he is being mentored by King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) and being groomed as the next-in-line. His mother is Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), who we know will play an important role because, well, the character is portrayed by Nicole Kidman. Later on, "The Witch" star Anya Taylor-Joy shows up, and you'll also notice other Eggers regulars like Willem Dafoe and Ralph Ineson in bit roles.
When tragedy strikes at the hands of Amleth's uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang), Amleth manages to escape. It sets up the classic story of revenge, where the young boy returns years later, know fully-grown (and ripped, I might add) to avenge his family. And trust me, grown-up Amleth is not someone that you want hunting you down.
Eggers is a master at putting the audience in a time and a place...just like you could almost taste the salty brine of "The Lighthouse," you will feel filthy and destitute - and in need of a shower - within minutes. From the cinematography, to the costumes, to the make-up and hair, to the sound design and editing, "The Northman" seems destined to be a film that is remembered later this year, even though it suffers from the awards-season curse of an April release. But movies of this caliber are not easily forgotten.
The opening scenes pull you in and the epic climax - a battle between two silhouetted warriors literally at the gates of Hell - are truly impressive. In fact, the first and last thirds of the film are abundantly effective. It's that middle-third that keeps "The Northman" from reaching true Valhalla status as a masterpiece. It slows down considerably and dare I say becomes a bit mundane and even abstract. As rich as the visuals are throughout, this is not necessarily a world that you want to spend any extra time in that you don't have to.
Let's face it, the story that Eggers is working with is quite straight-forward and familiar, so certain pitfalls are unavoidable. In some ways though, the problems with "The Northman" are also what makes it great. On one hand, his style and vision are what dresses things up and makes the film more than just your average revenge story. But it's specifically that dressing that leads to people not being able to relate to what's underneath.
"The Northman" is not for everyone, but you know what? That's OK. You could give one hundred directors the same generic tale of revenge to work with, and few would be able to do what Robert Eggers does. Love it, hate it, or land anywhere in-between, there's no chance you'll forget it.
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama.
Run Time: 2 hours 16 minutes.
Starring: Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe, Claes Bang, Elliott Rose, Bjork.
Written and Directed by Robert Eggers ("The Lighthouse," "The Witch").
"The Northman" is in theaters on Friday, April 15th, 2022.
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