When Robert Eggers makes a movie, I presume two things: 1) That I’m going to like it; b) That I’m not going to recommend it to most people.
This is a lot of prejudice considering I’ve only seen one movie of his, The Witch, all the way back in 2016. Though time is different these days, as if two years had been stolen. He also made The Lighthouse, which I did not see, but which sounded much like The Witch: Something The Boy and I would enjoy but wouldn’t recommend to someone whom we didn’t know had a taste for kind of slow-moving, tension-building historical dramas.
Despite this limited info, I was correct: I did enjoy The Northman and I would not recommend it to very many people. But not because it was slow moving, rather because it’s too alien to most people’s understandings and, let’s be honest, most people don’t go to the movies to expand their horizons. I was not surprised by one old lady a few seats in front of us who scoffed, finding the whole thing outrageous, apparently. The RT 89/63 split makes perfect sense, except I even think that 63 is a bit too high for a general audience. (This isn’t a movie that a “general audience” would go to, so it self-selects for people more likely to enjoy it.)
I would describe it this way: Imagine, if you will, Christianity had never conquered Scandinavia. The Vikings, instead (somehow) had continued to thrive as a culture and make their colonies in America stick. Fast forward a few hundred years and Hollywood is formed by Norse Pagans, and they want to tell a religious story, like the Ten Commandments.
This is the movie they’d make.
Allegedly based on the same legend that inspired Hamlet, our protagonist is Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård, What Maisie Knew, Melancholia) who as young boy sees his father murdered and his mother raped (in the classical sense of “carried off”) by his uncle and, barely escaping swears revenge. Twenty, thirty, forty years later—Skarsgård is 46 so, yeah—he comes back for revenge. Except that he can’t go back for revenge because his treacherous uncle was immediately displaced by King Harald and is currently unemployed! In Greenland!
OK, Iceland, but you get the idea: Amleth is going to Iceland to wreak havoc and settle an ancient blood debt without any clue of what’s going on any more. It’s strictly revenge for revenge’s sake.
This is not, generally speaking, a crowd-pleaser. It doesn’t reach the excesses of a Korean revenge flick, thank Odin. But it is, at points, basically a slasher film from the slasher’s perspective.
It’s also not really the interesting part of the movie, though this is well done. The interesting parts, at least to my perspective, and why I relate it to, like, the Viking Ten Commandments is that the mythic nature of the story is teased but ultimately validated, and in spades. (Shades of The Witch.) The film is filled with omens and agents of the gods that all incline Amleth to act in the way he does. There’s a scene lifted straight out of Conan—though it wouldn’t surprise me if Howard himself had lifted the story from mythology—but this story is done in a coy fashion, a kind of “did it? or didn’t it?” happen.
Hallucinogens make the issue murky.
But by the end, if we are to believe anything in the story, I think we have to take the mystical elements at face value. The gods want blood and they reward those who spill it.
The Vikings are shown in all their brutal glory: They rape and pillage and enslave and it’s hard to actually root for anyone or anything, with the possible exception of Amleth’s slave lover, Olga (Anna Taylor-Joy). She seemed to be a Christian capture but she’s pretty fully pagan by the end so I don’t know what’s going on there. Other than, wow, who thought this little girl would be such a good actress. She mostly just has to emote her way through The VVitch, which was pretty low key, but she’s got some range.
Amleth’s mother is played by Nicole Kidman in some quality scenery chewing scenes. Her various “beauty treatments” seem to have settled in, and she’s rather convincing and eerie as a kind of ageless, almost goddess-like figure. I remember being disturbed by her face in Paddington, by contrast and—say, she’s doing a lot of villainess roles lately, isn’t she? Well, she’s good at ’em. I can’t claim I understood her character here. Was she insane or was she crazy like a fox? (Another Hamlet parallel!)
Clae Bass plays Fjolnir, the uncle of contention. Ethan Hawke is dead dad. Bjork gets to be the sorceress she was always meant to be. Willem Dafoe fits right in there with a small role.
Good acting. Good action, mostly. The final battle is a sword fight on a river of lava, and it’s way better than the last one of those you saw, swearsies. It’s hard to tell who is who in that fight, which I think is deliberate, and underscores the fact that there’s no victor possible in a conventional moral sense but also that we, the audience, don’t necessarily care who wins.
Now, look, if you were a Viking descendant living in a Pagan Norse America, you probably wouldn’t have any problem rooting for the characters in this film—actually either Amleth or his uncle, frankly. One of the things the movie does, in its own weird way, is validate the morality of the characters which was both ubiquitous pre-Christianity in Europe and really, really awful.
So for me, I kind of like that, especially in a historical context. (I’m not crazy when Palestinians do it today, mind you.) When they say a movie is “challenging” this, I think, is a shockingly high-budget example of just that. It bombed in theaters, but may have made its money back streaming; I don’t know how those things are, really, and I presume it’s because Hollywood is hiding the real numbers until they figure out how to extract maximum cash from people. I also presume that they poured money into this because they still kinda-sorta understand “good” in terms of movie craft, but don’t at all understand their alleged audiences. And that’s why everything is a sequel or a franchise based on 30-80 year old property.
The Boy really liked its historical accuracy, right up until the fights, which he felt were dumb Hollywood schlock, all the more painful because the rest of it (at least in terms of the armor and weapons he’s so fond of) was so close.
A narrow recommendation at best, is what I’m saying.