Savage 'The Northman' Slakes Our Thirst For The Historical Epic
Behold — the relentless drumbeat of revenge.
"I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir."
The chant of The Northman, sung by Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, is the drumbeat of Robert Eggers' third film: a revenge tale made with the writer/director's signature period flourishes. Eggers takes us there — Iceland 895 AD — where Vikings rule, families rise and fall, and a warrior prince seeks to avenge his father's murder. The Northman is immediately one of the great revenge movies and historical epics ever made.
In the glorious tradition of films like Valhalla Rising and The Revenant, The Northman takes its place. Everything begins with the setting, and the authenticity of these movies is what sets them apart. Eggers, the man behind The Witch and The Lighthouse, has already proven himself an art department virtuoso. He has clothes made from scratch — the old way. He travels to distant places. He finds ancient dialogue. He cares, and it shows. The 38-year-old's movies are magical, but always grounded in the reality of the time and place. The Northman is no exception.
Set at the turn of the ninth century, The Northman begins in tragedy. Amleth, the prince, witnesses the death of his kingly father (Ethan Hawke) at the hands of his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), in a brutal power play. Fjölnir takes Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) for himself and orders Amleth killed. But the boy escapes and, years later, emerges as a "beast cloaked in man flesh."
The words of revenge forever in his mind, like Arya Stark's prayer, Amleth sets out on a fated path. His grandfather was forced to kill his uncle, as well. It's Eggers' interest in destiny that drives all his films. The Coen brothers tap this vein to absurdity. Many filmmakers have. Kubrick strapped Malcolm McDowell to a chair and pinned his eyes open to make us think about it. Eggers' characters are trying to live their simple lives when fate intervenes. Something bigger is at work — evil, madness, revenge — all dwarf man's free will like a mountain shadow. And it gives Eggers license to go wild — men are wolves, witches (Björk!) exist, and valkyries are quite real.
Eggers, who co-wrote the script with Icelandic poet Sjón, could also make a film without any of these themes or mythological touches and it'd still be well worth watching. The Northman is, at its heart, a straightforward revenge tale, predictable even. But you could never predict the sights and sounds of the film. It delivers all the classic Viking things of lore — the carved ships with their many oars rowing in unison, the mythos of Odin, the warriors on horseback, and the relentless reaving and raping. But it elevates everything with careful attention (and a $95 million budget). It's non-stop, bloody entertainment.
The Northman is a savage experience. Mollycoddles had better stay out. Revenge is a dish best served cold, and that's taken literally here. Some scenes are shot in black and white for an even more frigid effect. The elements are harsh to match the film's violence, shown without mercy. This is the stuff that inspired heavy metal. Iron, blood, and fire to its core, The Northman taps into the darkness inside us all.