That Hashtag Show’s review of The Northman is absolutely spoiler-free.
On face value, without all the auteur theory diatribe, The Northman is an incredibly simple film. It’s the story of revenge and how that revenge can affect someone. It just so happens that visionary director Robert Eggers took on the tale of a Viking prince trying to avenge the death of his father at the hands of his uncle. Throughout the nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes run time, The Northman plays with themes of revenge, primal rage, trauma, and witchcraft. However, the main theme of absolute vengeance overtakes those other themes and places them on the backburner.
The mystical stylings of Eggers in the film provide a gateway to a more experimental and artistic style that more traditional audiences might avoid. His previous films The Lighthouse and The Witch are far from common denominator viewing. Among so-called “elevated cinema” fans, they’re gold. They didn’t do much to move the needle outside of genre fans. They were both great films, but The Northman might have the right combination of violence, action, and storytelling for the common audience to realize how much of a master Eggers is.
More Vengeance Than Batman
Alexander Skarsgård stars here as Amleth, the son of War-Raven King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). Amleth barely escapes his father’s murder at the hands of his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang). He flees to the sea while Fjölnir takes over his father’s kingdom and wife, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Fast-forward some number of years, and Amleth is part of a marauding clan where he can use his deep-seated rage and channel it in battle. In a haunting scene, a witch/Seer (Björk) reminds him of his vow to avenge his father at any cost.
The story and screenplay by Eggers and co-writer Sjón takes something that’s been well-tread in Hollywood and abroad, revenge, and makes it into this mystical, but still realistic tale. There are hints of mysticism with the Seer and Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), but almost all of the proceedings are realistic, down to the injuries that Amleth and his foes endure during combat. It’s a trippy and hallucinogenic journey to a climax that rivals the best we’ve seen in film.
It combines shamanic magic with brutal realism to the world that’s shown. Some of the events shown on screen aren’t clear as to whether they’re in the head of a wild Viking man or actually happening. Everything has this sheen of a distant dream, while still remaining close to that brutality of real life. The scenes of violent battle might highlight the trailers, but they’re not even the best when it comes to the vision that Eggers puts on film. You might head to the theater to see The Northman for the fighting, but you’ll stay for the humanity (or lack thereof) on display with Skarsgård’s performance.
A Villain That Might Be More Compelling Than Our Hero
Claes Bang is no stranger to playing tragic, yet compelling antagonists/villains. He portrayed Dracula in the 2020 mini-series from Netflix. As Fjölnir, the story develops to a point where his performance almost makes you want to see Amleth fail. His tale is not the standard villain in a revenge story, there’s more at play, without risking spoilers, that adds plenty of nuance and perspective to this performance. Once you realize the whole picture at hand, the whole tale becomes all the more fulfilling. His range makes the audience truly feel for him instead of just blindly wanting him to die. When you finally get to see that confrontation that bubbles over and explodes between Amleth and Fjölnir, it’s a sight to behold.
For a film that feels so incredibly grand and epic like The Northman, the film takes a step away from the stock revenge narrative. At times the battle scenes and grandiose violence feel like something out of an old-school epic, but then it slows down and goes back deeper into the familial dynamic and what it means to live your life with one goal in mind. Amleth’s character has one motivation:
I will avenge you, Father.
I will save you, Mother.
I will kill you, Fjölnir
Accuracy, Commitment, And Violence Highlight The Film
Loss Of Other Themes Might Not
The whole film is a testament to the accuracy and excellence in filmmaking that Robert Eggers provides. Down to the absolute brutality shown towards their fellow man, The Northman excels when it’s riding towards the one goal of vengeance for Amleth. It never stutters, but along the way, themes that could have been better explored get tossed by the wayside for the central tenet of the film.
In a different filmmaker’s hands, this could have been a one-dimensional mess, but with Eggers, the film succeeds and then some. The Northman is the most accessible film he’s made so far, but one that keeps up with his unrelenting vision of filmmaking.
The Northman releases in theaters on April 22nd, 2022.
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