This review of “The Northman” was first published on April 11, 2022.
Sharpen the swords and prepare the funeral pyres: A Viking is out for bloody revenge in “The Northman,” and the corpses keep piling higher and higher in this trippy action epic from director and co-writer Robert Eggers (“The Lighthouse”).
Written in collaboration with Icelandic author Sjón (“Lamb,” “Dancer in the Dark”), “The Northman” is gory, muddy, hallucinatory — and intensely entertaining. An examination of the way that violence begets violence, and a study of how a life devoted to single-minded hatred and vengeance can lead to uncomfortable truths, this is a movie that lives up to every saga comic books and metal bands ever spun about the brutal conquerors of yore.
We open on young Prince Amieth (Oscar Novak, “The Batman”) running to tell his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) of the return of King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), whose arrival is celebrated with a feast that includes japery from court jester Heimir (Willem Dafoe). Aurvandil and Heimir soon initiate young Amieth into a ritual that allows him to tap into his inner wolf, and the timing couldn’t be better: Aurvandil is soon thereafter assassinated by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang, “The Square”), leaving the prince to flee in a rowboat, vowing to murder Fjölnir and one day rescue Gudrún from his clutches.
As an adult, Amieth (now played by Alexander Skarsgård) uses that wolf power as part of a marauding band that conquers a village and sells off its inhabitants into slavery. When he realizes that the hardiest of the captives are being sold to Fjölnir — now a farmer and Freyja-cultist after being displaced from his throne — Amieth brands himself and joins the slaves, eager to fulfill his lifelong quest. Along the way, he falls in love with captive Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), but coming face to face with his nemesis (and reuniting with his beloved mother) winds up being a far more complicated affair that Amieth could ever have predicted.
Eggers and his director of photography Jarin Blaschke are now three-for-three at making films that unfold in harsh and unforgiving natural settings that seem to defy human occupation. After the banquet in Aurvandil’s honor, there’s never a moment in which anyone on screen looks warm, comfortable or sufficiently fed, and in this case, the brutality of the surroundings feeds the single-minded intensity of Amieth and his quest. Practically every shot in “The Northman” is gorgeous, but Blaschke’s lighting, particularly in the night sequences, brings dread and unease into that beauty, matching the intricate but unsettling sound design from supervising sound editor Steve Little and his team.
Editor Louise Ford (“Things Heard & Seen”) knows how to draw out moments of grandeur (the sailing of long ships, characters trudging the epic Icelandic countryside) while also giving the moments of violence the appropriate shock and intensity, from jarring hand-to-hand combat to Amieth’s secret nighttime assaults on Fjölnir’s compound. (There’s also an athletic sequence, involving a bone-breaking, ninth-century version of cricket that makes you want to see Eggers’ take on a sports movie.)
As with his previous two films, Eggers knows how to bring the actors to the specifically weird wavelength of his stories, and the ensemble commits absolutely to inhabiting this world and conveying the passions and obsessions of the characters. Skarsgård goes borderline feral for big portions of the film, but there’s never a sense of indulgent posturing; he provides a path of understanding what drives Amieth, even as the character plunges into animalistic ferocity. As in Eggers’ debut feature, Taylor-Joy’s wide eyes and otherworldly quality allow her to convey with conviction the idea of a woman with powers on a mystical plane. Olga may not match Amieth in physical intimidation, but she shares his commitment to the destruction of their shared enemy.
Kidman rarely gets the credit she deserves for going out on a limb and seeking opportunities to work with envelope-pushing directors. Like Catherine Deneuve, Kidman embraces eccentric characterizations guided by filmmakers working outside the mainstream, and she often reaps the benefits with indelible supporting roles like this one that enhance her reputation as an unpredictable and engrossing performer, a movie star who’s always a character actress at heart.
“The Northman” is the best kind of multi-quadrant movie. Without abandoning his arthouse credentials, Eggers has made a rousingly rough, extreme action saga that has the potential of attracting the kind of viewers who might have found his previous work impenetrable. It’s a vision of futility and fury, of a clash between nature and humanity where violence is both the means and the consequence, and an ancient revenge fantasy that speaks with terrible truth to this moment and to the historical lessons we never seem to learn.
“The Northman” opens Friday in U.S. theaters.