Equal parts beautiful and desolate like a part of Iceland’s own volcanic countryside, The Northman is auteur Robert Eggers’ most straightforward film, making up in style what it gives up in the complexity of his previous films. Grabbing relentlessly from the tales of Hamlet and Beowulf, Eggers delves back into his continued curiosity about the desire for ritual and the ways it covers up the realities of existence.
The story itself may not live up to the complex psychological excursions of Eggers’ previous work, but raw apocalyptic visuals have seldom been so vigorously captured. And what better story for such visuals than one of vengeance? What better story of revenge than the classic tale of Hamlet.
Though Shakespeare’s version was a more courtly character piece about a man who famously couldn’t make up his mind, Alexander Skarsgård‘s Amleth has no such problems.
He knows he wants to kills his uncle for the murder of his father and rescue and he will do whatever it takes to achieve his aim, even disguising himself as a slave and being taken into the household of Fjölnir the Brotherless (The Square‘s Claes Bang) to wreak bloody havoc from within.
Disguised as the mysterious Bear Wolf, Amleth sneaks out of pen each night to kill and mutilate residents of Fjölnir’s village like some strange monster from the depths. If the story is straightforward, Eggers dresses it up in spectacular ritual just like his Viking alter-egos.
Whenever faced with momentous choices or horrible deeds, the people of Eggers’ worlds resort to dressing it up with chants and make-up and costumes and fire, distancing themselves from the brutal world they live in. It’s as close as anyone gets to reacting to the death and murder they cause to reacting to the brutality of their world.
Like similar auteur Jeremy Saulnier (who Skarsgård has also maimed and pillaged for), the visual delight in violence and dismemberment is meant to be a commentary on how we take this sort of entertainment in versus how we should take it.
It’s not clear much that commentary is working when naked Vikings hack and slash at one another on the cusp of a volcano, but then again at that point what does it matter?
If there is a doubt in in Amleth’s mind it only comes from his growing relationship with fellow slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) with whom he plots his attacks.
But even there all the steps forward, for how clouded in ritual they are, are cloaked in ritual. The only characters who get something like complexity are the villains, particularly Nicole Kidman‘s Gudrún, who relentlessly explains the reality of the world and his own father’s evil to Amleth.
Whatever it loses in complexity it makes up for in sheer visual power. Like Coppala’s own apocalypse, he breaks human experience down into browns of earth and reds of fire warring for visual dominance and consuming the poor unfortunate people caught within.
From the barren white forests of Amleth’s childhood to the misty forests and caves of Fjölnir’s holdfast and the volcano that sits above it, human beings are mere ornaments on the destructive landscapes of earth, their loves and pains and hurts and joys immaterial against an unfeeling world that won’t notice them when they’ve gone.
Against that sort of insignificance, it’s no wonder people cover up every element of life with ritual – if we don’t make ourselves feel important it’s for certain nothing else will.
That’s a lot of reach for something that ultimately doesn’t live up to the more complex joys of Eggers’ previous films but sometimes you just need a simple story of man trying to kill his uncle. Eggers and co. deliver that in spades in this beautiful Viking fable of blood and fire.
THE NORTHMAN REVIEW SCORE: 7 OUT OF 10
Focus Features will release The Northman in theaters on Friday, April 22, 2022.