You can take the director out of the A24, but you can’t take the A24 out of the director.
That’s the thought that struck me about twenty minutes into The Northman, director Robert Eggers’s third feature following folk horror masterpiece The Witch (2015) and bonkers horror nightmare The Lighthouse (2019). The Northman is Eggers’s first film to be produced outside the A24 stable, and his first to have more than a budget of, give or take, a thousand bucks (with free peanuts thrown in for the actors).
But even as the bigger budget and action-heavy story draw Eggers a couple inches closer to mainstream Hollywood, the departure from A24 has done little to temper Eggers’s trademark sensibilities. With its witches and body horror and flashes of psychedelia, The Northman shares more than a few strands of DNA with Eggers’s previous films, not to mention former A24 stablemates like Ari Aster’s Midsommar (2019) and David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021).
It’s also, if you can stomach it, a Hel of a good time.
It might have dodgy CGI and even dodgier accents, but The Northman is the best Viking movie since the Kirk Douglas/Tony Curtis The Vikings, all the way back in 1958. Like The Vikings, The Northman is a 9th century revenge epic, following a young man sent into exile after the murder of his father, only to return years later to wreak vengeance and look matinée idol good while doing it. Except, Tony Curtis was never as buff as the habitually shirtless Alexander Skarsgård (“Amleth”) in The Northman.
It helps to know, and the movie broadly hints at this from its opening moments, that this Amleth story is, indeed, the original Norse legend that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet. There’s Ethan Hawke as King Aurvandill, Skarsgård as his son Amleth, an excellent Claes Bang as the King’s duplicitous brother Fjölnir, and Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrún, Amleth’s apparently ageless mother. There’s also, because of course there is, a jester character played by a nigh-incomprehensible Willem Dafoe, whose Heimir the Fool probably ranks just a head of Yorick (alas!) in the ranks of beloved court jesters.
But this is really Skarsgård’s movie, and, to a lesser extent, that of Anya Taylor-Joy’s “Olga of the Birch Forest”, a sorceress who aids Amleth in his quest for revenge. Taylor-Joy, who made her name with Eggers’s debut feature The Witch, portrays here a less interesting, softer version of the witch character which has quietly become her trademark. (She also portrayed the witchy Magik in the much maligned New Mutants movie.) Taylor-Joy is always fun to watch, but it’s Skarsgård who is the bearded, beautiful face of The Northman. His Amleth is a potent combination of brutal warrior who slaughters with no remorse (though, unlike his compatriots, he balks at harming women or children!) yet remains capable of warmth and affection in his scenes with Taylor-Joy. Skarsgård is a dreamboat capable of turning, on a dime, into a terrifying man-beast, and it’s difficult to think of another actor more suited for this role. Presumably, there’s more than a bit of Viking blood coursing through those Swedish veins of his.
Skarsgård is the best part about The Northman, but there’s a lot to like about it, from its gorgeous winter Nordic landscapes to its rousing scenes of Vikings and Berserkers screaming, thudding their shields, thudding their bare chests even harder. Then, as the film transitions more concretely into the revenge plot – which is really far less sophisticated than the film seems to think it is – there’s a certain perverse pleasure in watching the heads roll and bodies pile up, even as the action dials down.
That’s one thing that might surprise viewers, even those familiar with Eggers’s past work. Aside from a handful of scenes of brutal violence – a pulse-pounding and soon-to-be-memed Berserker sequence, a climactic sword battle – much of The Northman is taken up by brief Green Knight-like vignettes, many of which could have been lifted straight out of David Lowery’s fantasy epic from last year. These side stories involve, among other things, a sporting event that rivals Quidditch for the best sports scene in a non-sports movie, a suitably weird Björk cameo, a quest for a fabled sword, a healthy dose of magic mushrooms, and, in the least happy echo of The Green Knight, some bafflingly shoddy CGI animals.
Speaking of baffling choices, Nicole Kidman deploys an even more absurd Boris-meets-Natasha-meets-Dracula accent than in her recent Nine Perfect Strangers, and that’s saying something. While both Ethan Hawke and Claes Bang acquit themselves well as rival brothers, Kidman’s Gertrude-like turn as Queen Gudrún is perhaps the film’s only real weak spot. Excepting one emotionally raw scene – a knowing homage to “The Queen’s Closet” in Act III, Scene IV of Hamlet – Kidman just can’t get out from under the distracting accent salad that Eggers allowed her to adopt. Aren’t there voice coaches for this sort of thing?
The Northman has a few other weaknesses as well. Despite hinting at some Midsommar-level psychedelia, Eggers whiffs a couple opportunities to go as wild as that film or even his own The Lighthouse. Similarly, his decision to pull back from the over-the-top action promised by the Berserker sequence, while understandable, robs the film of some of its momentum. Granted, these are conscious, authorial choices, and they don’t exactly lessen the movie, so much as make it different from what viewers might expect (or misleading trailers might suggest). Nevertheless, four months into 2022, The Northman is easily my favourite film of the year so far. Now when does Ari Aster’s new flick come out?
Visit the official website for The Northman here.