THE NORTHMAN Is a Gorgeous Historical Epic Hampered by Revenge Movie Tropes

Robert Eggers has carved a niche for himself making visually arresting, thoroughly researched historical films with supernatural and folkloric overtones. It’s hyper specific and gave us two of the best movies of their kind of the past decade, The Witch from 2015 and  The Lighthouse from 2019. Both movies are deeply unsettling affairs exploring several universal themes in the weirdest ways possible. His newest movie, The Northman, is by far his least weird. That, consequently, also makes it my least favorite. It’s not a bad movie in the least, it just feels like a lot of the Eggers special sauce got watered down, even if the brutality went way, way up.

Alexander Skarsgård covered in Blood in The Northman
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The Northman‘s attention to period detail is perhaps the most impressive of Eggers’ whole career. The scope of something like this is massive, utilizing the vast, frigid landscape of Iceland to explore several different cultures melded through pillaging and slavery. Norse, Celtic, Rus, and Pict characters all occupy the screen at the same time and they each feel different in their own particular way. I never once doubted the veracity of any element on screen. It truly feels like a journey through history.

What doesn’t quite have the same feeling of immersion is the story. A young Norse prince named Amleth witnesses his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), murdered at the hands of his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), is therefore taken as Fjölnir’s new queen. Though Amleth is himself sought for death, he escapes in a boat, vowing to return one day to avenge his father, rescue his mother, and kill his uncle.

A sword pointed at King Aurvandill's face in The Northman
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Years later, Amleth is a Bear-Wolf Viking raider, now in the ab-having portrayal of Alexander Skarsgård, the beefiest Skarsgård. After ransacking a Russian village, Amleth overhears a tale of King Fjölnir’s loss of his kingdom. He is little more than a town chieftain in Iceland, but Amleth’s hatred and fire for vengeance has not died. Amleth disguises himself as a slave, and joins a caravan heading to Fjölnir’s town. Along with a cunning young Rus maiden named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), Amleth plots the slow destruction of his uncle and everything he holds dear. But, as is always the question, will revenge truly sate his bloodlust?

This is one of the oldest stories in the world. I don’t mean just because this movie takes place in the late-9th century AD; you have seen this story before. It’s Conan the Barbarian, it’s Hamlet, it’s at least 50% of all spaghetti westerns. The revenge story cannot exist without effectively turning the avenger into a beast who has to choose whether to succumb to their hatred or go down a more forgiving path. The body count goes way up while they decide, naturally.

Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) are led via chains through the Icelandic wilderness in The Northman.
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Certainly it’s not like The Northman is wholly without the trademark Eggers touches. The moments when the movie truly shines are when the narrative brings in elements of folklore and superstition. When Amleth begins his nighttime raids of his uncle’s farm, we get a bit of the Norse magic and mysticism. Fjölnir’s elder son Thórir (Gustav Lindt) believes it to be the heretical magic of the Christian slaves they’d acquired from Ireland. Olga uses “Earth magic” she picked up in Rus. We see Norse ritual sacrifices to the god Freyja. It’s a fascinating mélange of different influences.

While the movie definitely has its fair share of cool elements like that—Björk as an eyeless seer is a standout, and Willem Dafoe as a weird jester-meets-mystic is another—it all too frequently feels like they are at the mercy of the narrative, which is as rote and pedestrian as it gets. I love a good revenge story, don’t get me wrong, but The Northman feels trapped by it rather than using it to explore any other greater themes.

Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) shouts with his Viking raider party in The Northman.
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Both The Witch and The Lighthouse explore some fascinating avenues of toxic masculinity. They show us men who are in various ways impotent and unable to enact the change in their own lives. Which, of course, leaves them open to the otherworldly forces which inhabit the forest or the sea that surround them. Here, the toxic masculinity feels both horribly destructive and unchecked. Adult Amleth is a ball of rage from his first appearance to his last, literally roaring or howling like the animals he emulates. His actions therefore lead other men—notably, but not limited to, Fjölnir—to reply in kind. This does feel like the men here are in their own ways impotent, but we never see an opposite. Brutality begets brutality and, justified or not, brutality is all there shall be.

The cast is excellent, the cinematography from Eggers’ regular collaborator Jarin Blaschke is gorgeous, and everything about the time period feels perfect and rich. And yet, I can’t help thinking about how much more David Lowery seemed to do with his Arthurian riff, The Green Knight, last year. It too is a hero’s journey of sorts, about a man with an unsure future attempting to follow or upend his fate. But it’s so much stranger, so much more interesting in a number of different ways, and seems to use its mystical and mythological elements to a greater level of effect.

The Northman is a gorgeous, textured depiction of its place and time, with so much to recommend it on both sides of the camera. I just wish it had found something deeper to show us, a more nuanced story to tell than what we get. And it’s not like there aren’t plenty of opportunities. A couple of moments in the story had me saying “Oh wow, that’s interesting!” But they ultimately only broke the rhythm of the typical genre conventions briefly. The flow of the revenge movie could not be contained for long.

If you have any interest in seeing a visual interpretation of a Viking epic at its pinnacle, I would recommend seeing The Northman wherever has the best sound and projection near you. It’s a beautiful looking movie. However, don’t go in expecting the unpredictability of The Witch or The Lighthouse, to which The Northman simply can’t hold a candle, or torch.

3 out of 5

Kyle Anderson is the Senior Editor for Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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