‘The Northman’ opens the Gates of Hel, spawning virulent Viking camp

Illustration of scenery from the new film, 'The Northman'.
Angela Bi/Staff

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

2022 leaves audiences to sip reluctantly at the dregs of small-scale pandemic movies, often stiflingly political and void of an emotional core, save for a treacly, superficial one. It’s a dreadful way to make art, but one increasingly supplanted by behemoth blockbuster epics that spill fjords of histrionics and innards onto the silver screen. “The Northman” certainly fits the latter description. 

There is no dearth of ambition in Robert Eggers’ third feature, which forsakes arid Viking drudgery — the kind mired in the myriad folktales “The Northman” sources from — for orgiastic, chainmail-clad antics. In many ways, it’s “Gladiator” recalibrated for an audience disenchanted with antiquity.

Perhaps this is why “The Northman” feels less fossilized and more like science fiction, both in its nerdy, arterial sensibilities and in the precision of the world Eggers chisels. The film vacillates between highly choreographed, contrived sequences that immerse audiences in ninth century Iceland and scenes so rattled by maximalist CGI that it detracts from the meticulously curated atmosphere.

Eggers follows Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) — a prototype of Shakespeare’s Hamlet — through a raven-addled revenge odyssey that spills an inconceivable amount of blood. Just when you think you’ve had enough, it spills more. The occult machinations Eggers indulged in his previous features, A24 darlings “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” also simmer in the film’s carnal, Willem Dafoe-helmed blood rituals. 

Such rituals underpin the film’s most striking and salient visual conduits; for example, the recurring “Tree of Kings,” a snarl of luminescent, purpled veins and arteries that bind past and present kings. It’s a visual Eggers intelligently deploys as touchstone for an otherwise entropic and meandering epic that tends to get too big for its britches (or Nordic man skirts). 

Skarsgård himself foments the film’s exothermic visual language. Amleth is virile, and self-sufficient in a way that is hostile to modernity. Skarsgård and Eggers are less preoccupied with Amleth’s intrinsic journey than they are with his bawdy, intemperate and highly external one — the one solely concerned with avenging his father, saving his mother, and killing Fjolnir, as the young Amleth (Oscar Novak) repeatedly drones.

“The Northman” succeeds in part because it is unencumbered by weighty moralizing overtures. Honor, vengeance, sex and Bjork are about all there is. More crucial is the film’s negative space in which resides morality and the filial. While on a slave ship en route to Fjolnir’s Icelandic domain, Amleth meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), forest sorceress and “Slavic b—” who he soon falls for.

The film owes much of its success to its cast, rife with industry heavyweights such as Taylor-Joy, Dafoe, Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman, the latter delivering the best performance of the bunch as the hilariously unhinged Queen Gudrún. In spite of its talented ensemble cast, “The Northman” maintains strict adherence to historical accuracy, with thick Norse accents put on by the actors belying their intelligibility. 

For all of the media fervor surrounding Eggers’ quixotry, detail-attuned creative process and his subsequent acquiescence to the studio, “The Northman” approaches underwhelming. As with the blood and guts, the runtime is egregiously out of proportion. It certainly raises the question of whether its acclaim is merited or merely a symptom of Film Twitter’s positioning of it as a simulacrum for broader grievances regarding creative control and the various ways it is quashed by profit. 

Aside from the gratuitous praise of the historical intricacy and verisimilitude “The Northman” has incurred, few have noted the ways in which it dips its toes into absurdity, whether intentionally or otherwise. It’s evident that “The Northman” has strayed far from Eggers’ initial stoic creative vision, yet it comes out the other side not necessarily as a diluted draft — but as a gauche and deeply funny permutation. It’s raucous, campy “Pagan Poetry.”

Emma Murphree covers film. Contact her at [email protected].