Talented writer director Robert Eggers has now been at the helm for 3 feature length films. All of which are set significantly in the past. His directorial feature debut, The VVitch is an elevated horror New England folktale about the rise of perceived and prejudiced witchcraft surrounding a Puritan family experiencing supernatural events. The Lighthouse strands two keepers on the verge of madness from isolation and having to endure the other person for what feels like years on end. Eggers’ newest fare The Northman takes place in medieval Iceland steeped in Norse mythology. If Eggers never makes a modern day setting film, I don’t think a single complaint will be made in protest of this declaration. Eggers has proved his talent is best served at exploring different mythologies, fairytales, and varying different mental states.
Manifesting it right now but I would be first in line if Eggers made a spectacle pirate film.
April 2022 will be looked back at as a uniquely enriching month for film. Not only are more and more people going back to theaters feeling more comfortable and confident around others in close spaces, but more and more are giving original concepts a chance to make their mark while the blockbusting franchises remain the main draw for the masses. Despite what the growing population may think or speak into existence, original films like The Northman, Everything Everywhere All at Once and The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent make up a significant portion of the industry. October 2021 was pretty rad too – fully packed week to week with big name directors dropping their latest projects.
Based on the Viking warrior prince Amleth (Oscar Novak as a young version, Alexander Skarsgård as an older version), the same Amleth that William Shakespeare based Hamlet on, The Northman is 2 hours plus full of breathtakingly blood-drenched revenge pitting Amleth against his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) for the murder of his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke). “I will avenge you father, I will rescue you mother, I will kill you Fjölnir” Amleth vows as a young boy escaping death by cutting one of his uncle’s henchmen’s nose off. That vow of revenge follows Amleth into adulthood as he pillages a village with his adoptive tribe. Nearly forgetting his past, a Seeress (Björk) puts Amleth back on track to avenge the death of his father.
Perhaps what’s most admirable about Eggers as a director is his acute attention to the small details. Both The VVitch and The Northman utilize the natural light during each period the stories take place. Keeping with the verisimilitude of the time, the only light source comes from either the sunshine or a flaming torch. Eggers doesn’t cut corners or use unnatural lighting techniques that wouldn’t fit. Because of this, the contrast of the Icelandic landscape is unbelievably gorgeous. If the word epic wasn’t already clichéd and misplaced on films that don’t deserve it than I might change my mind about the word, however, Eggers brings to life a complete odyssey of a folktale with the scale to match it. And with that expanded scale Eggers filmmaking identity is never compromised. For 137 minutes, Eggers has us in the palm of his hand.
Understanding Eggers as a filmmaker is only half the battle here. Experiencing how Eggers constructs his film from the ground up based on his previous 2 films is the other. Expectations may just be The Northman’s Achilles heel. If this is a first experience of the directors work, the elements presented of fate, faith, religion and revenge may not land how they are intended. For one, the slow, drawn out pacing telling of this tale is perfectly aligned with the directory’s signature style. Atmosphere is given a higher emphasis with the story crafted to fit the authenticity of the period. Action is placed where it needs to be not where a studio demands it to be. Eggers making the creative decisions is what’s best for the final product. Waiting for anything loud and explosive is not feasible, that’s not how Eggers approaches his craft.
Shrouded in darkness and heavily researched, The Northman explores deep rooted Norse mythology that’s centuries old and traced back with the assistance of native historians. Co-writing the script along with Eggers is Sjón, an Icelandic novelist, poet, and songwriter. Who better to understand the lore of Vikings than those who were born and live in the area? Of course, the better part of moviegoers are not historians nor well versed in Viking / Norse lore but knowing the quality of the filmmaker crafting this experience, all of the rituals, the language, the environment is fully plausible. Warriors who let their animalistic side take control howling at the sky before turning loose on their enemies, sacrificing animals, dancing naked with the animal’s blood splattered across their body, Eggers adds it all unapologetically. Eggers tapped into this untamed spirit world and made it available to a wider audience than his previous two films had.
Fully trusting the director’s vision, led by a beast of a performance by Skarsgård, the talented cast transform to fit the old world they inhabit. A slew of familiar collaborators returns for this Norse spectacle. Aiding Amleth on his journey for revenge is a sorceress named Olga (Any Taylor-Joy). Both Skarsgård and Joy when together are enough of a distraction from the revenge aspect to want to see more of them together in the 2-hour run time. The more the two are together, the more pull I felt to watch them just run off, leaving the blood-thirsty killing behind – but that’s not Amleth’s mission, yet. As soon as he becomes a man, barking like a dog and letting out gas that separates humans from animals along with his father and Heimir (Willem Dafoe), his purpose as a warrior prince revolves around kindness for his kin or revenge for his enemies.
If it wasn’t for Taylor-Joy giving yet another weirdly astounding performance for the director, Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrún has a haunting interaction with her long-lost son. The tension this one scene creates only adds to the tragedy of Amleth’s loss as a young boy escaping his village.
Skarsgård is the perfect specimen to portray a berserker – he’s in peak shape from his red filled gaze to the way he carries himself when the wolf takes over, I don’t believe a better actor could have made this bloodlust any more realistic. I was ready to join Skaragård dousing myself in animal blood, wearing the hide of a wolf, burying hatchets into the flesh of my enemies and drinking from their skulls. Both Eggers and Skarsgård will bring out the animal in the tamest of people.
For a third time Eggers is unapologetic in how he tells his tale. Full on a revenge nihilistic thriller from the moment Amleth is a boy waiting for his father to come home to finding out he will have a family of his own, The Northman is relentless. Slow paced, just like his previous films, How Eggers crafts his story may not be easy to ingest by some but the fact that its available on a larger scale proves that Eggers talent is quickly getting the recognition it deserves. If not for the revenge plot, the strikingly poetic imagery, visuals and cinematography from Jarin Blaschke should be enough to get completely sucked into.
Along with last years The Green Knight medieval period thrillers are here to stay.
Written By: Sjón & Robert Eggers
Directed By: Robert Eggers
Music By: Robin Carolan & Sebastian Gainsborough
Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, Willem Dafoe, Oscar Novak
Release Date: April 22, 2022
Running Time: 2 Hours 17 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%