The Northman; 2022; 2h16m
Written by Robert Eggers & Sjon; Directed by Robert Eggers; Starring Alexander Skarsgard, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke Anya Taylor-Joy.
Focus Features; Theatrical release April 22, 2022.
They may be crowd-splitting but I’m a big fan of both of writer-director Robert Egger’s previous films, The Witch and The Lighthouse. Heck, The Lighthouse was my #1 movie of 2019. So of course, I was rather excited for Egger’s latest, The Northman.
The Northman is an unflinchingly violent and blood-drenched Viking revenge story and is one hell of a weird, wild ride. What we see on screen apparently isn’t his preferred cut, the studio pulling back a bit to make it more palatable for wide audiences. But if this is the pulled-back version, the director’s cut must be WILD, as we do have Egger’s weird all over. Then again, at the heart, it’s a basic revenge tale, based on the same legend as Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
As a kid, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard, with muscles upon muscles as an adult) was the crown prince on an island kingdom until his uncle (Claes Bang of BBC/Netflix’s Dracula) kills his dad (an against type Ethan Hawke) and runs off with his mom (Nicole Kidman). As an adult, he’s a berserker Viking until a visit from a witch (Bjork) reminds him of his revenge quest. He returns to his family, with the help of slave Anya Taylor-Joy to get said bloody, beastly revenge.
This movie brims with so much testosterone, I grew a beard watching it. But in a good way, in an animalistic grrrrrr of extreme emotion and violence; not the douche-Alpha of Fast and the Furious type testosterone.
Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography captures both the muted nihilism of Egger’s vision (and other features, as he shot those too), but the majesty of the open-air locations representing Scotland, Ukraine, Norway, and Iceland. The casting is fantastic; Skargard’s hulking menace lends an impressive physical presence to match a deep pain, Bang made a splash in Dracula (as uneven as that was, he was great) and continues here, Nicole Kidman spends most of the film in the background, but the scenes where she gets to unleash are wowing, and Anya Taylor-Joy is as strange and perfect as always. I do wish we had more Willem Dafoe.
It is astounding to me that Eggers got this made. Both The Witch and The Lighthouse were made on small budgets and did decent but not explosive numbers, but a budget of 60-90 million after them is wild. Both are well-known films, thus likely did well at home but still. I’m reminded of Peter Jackson, making small weird indie films until “here’s a ton of money to make these fantasy-based epics”. If it worked for him, let’s hope it works for Eggers. Though I do note Eggers looks forward to more creative control on a smaller budget for his next film. But based on his previous films, if The Northman is compromised, it’s not that compromised and I’m glad the studio let him get away with all the weird we did get.
Eggers crafts a truly committed film; the detail from top to bottom is astounding. It feels like every frame was perfectly and devoutly crafted. Nothing at all feels like painting by numbers. It is a huge leap to go at this, building a film many may have trouble connecting with its lack of empathy for just about everything. It’s bleak and tough. But drives with a deep fire. That may seem like a contradiction but I hold to it.
When the two-hour 17 minute runtime slips by in a blink of an eye, you know you have something wonderful.
PS – I talk about how damned macho the movie is, but I do want to say it’s ultimately critical of unbridled masculinity. But I fully expect those who don’t see the satire in Fight Club or the like to not get that at all and push this up as Peak Masculinity. I’m curious to see how the reception for The Northman goes over time.