Most filmmakers don’t deliver a masterpiece until much later in their careers. Some exceptions include The Wachowskis with The Matrix and, now, Robert Eggers with The Northman. Initially a production designer among other roles behind the scenes, Eggers made a name for himself with his directorial debut The Witch and pushed Anya Taylor-Joy toward stardom. I had issues with that film, but I also pointed out some aspects that worked. Who knew that, only two projects later, Eggers was capable of delivering an experience that should make people go back to theaters rather than endlessly streaming titles? I hope that Eggers doesn’t crash and burn like another promising filmmaker named M. Night Shyamalan. He followed up the arguably perfect The Sixth Sense with diminishing value in each release, culminating in awful junk like After Earth and The Visit while perhaps rebounding with the merely passable Old. The Northman drew me in from the beginning and never let up with its mixture of drama, brutal violence and realistic settings.
Cowriter/director Eggers teamed up with cowriter Sjón and fortunately wrote a compelling adventure unlike Sjón’s last collaboration on Lamb. Delving deep into Norse legends and a popular tale that inspired a little play called Hamlet, Eggers and Sjón made every aspect of the movie feel like a step back in time. Indeed, the Shakespearean comparisons seem obvious, only for me to find out later that the Bard’s play actually takes its impetus from an older story. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård as an adult and Oscar Novak as a boy) loves and idolizes his warrior father King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), who has just returned from battle to his Icelandic home in 895 AD. Jealous of everything that his brother has, Fjölnir (Claes Bang) kills Aurvandil, kidnaps his wife Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and sends one of his men to kill Amleth as well. Fortunately, Amleth possesses some of his father’s skills, and he escapes the island to go off to faraway lands where he focuses on eventually avenging his father, saving his mother and killing Fjölnir. Years pass, and Amleth has grown up to be a relentless fighter. When slaves are collected to work on Fjölnir’s farm — he has since lost his title — Amleth disguises himself as a slave to carry out his ultimate mission, also finding solace in the beautiful Olga (Taylor-Joy) as he infiltrates Fjölnir’s people.
Just that brief description glosses over the epic nature of the plot, which has so much going on that two of the stars don’t have much screen time. Willem Dafoe as the jester Heimir and Björk as a seeress only have one major sequence apiece; Eggers was excited nonetheless that he could include them. (Dafoe starred in the second film from Eggers called The Lighthouse.) Skarsgård is simply a force of nature. Fans of True Blood have seen a lot of him before, and his physique and combat skills are on full display here again and again. Bang and Kidman have their moments, but it’s tough to share the screen when someone like Skarsgård commands your attention. His efforts in The Legend of Tarzan probably figured more heavily into this latest outing than the more recent Godzilla vs. Kong. Taylor-Joy shows a greater range as a slave, lover and fierce woman, and that’s to be expected after such work as The Queen’s Gambit and the underrated Last Night in Soho. Her wide, expressive eyes draw you in as much as Olga does Amleth, and they share perfectly lit love scenes.
Eggers establishes his setting from the first moments with a voice-over against an ominous volcano and a number of ships heading home in gray visuals devoid of color that perhaps harken back to The Lighthouse before color seeps into the scenery. There’s no mistaking any of the outdoor locations for Hollywood sets or California backlots. The authentic villages and farm present a muddy, dirty mess far from the cleanliness of modern times. Historical dramas lure you in if done right, and The Last Duel reached this same level of authenticity. I always laugh at actors who deliver lines with English accents or sometimes no accents at all, a convention of movies of this kind. Fortunately, Eggers strives for some believability in a few scenes by having characters speak in ancient dialects a la The Passion of the Christ, which itself perhaps went overboard in completely using the purported original languages. Nevertheless, the lived-in nature of the hovels and other sets along with costumes and Norse culture complete the illusion. As a bonus, Eggers even stages a match of knattleikr, a game that reminded me of rugby combined with lacrosse or cricket, which also resulted in an important plot development.
When I was young, I developed a love for horror movies of all types. I also discovered that Conan the Barbarian comic books got away with a lot of blood and gore. The Northman satisfies with a similar vibe and gritty nature in its violence. I cheered out loud a few times with what Eggers pulled off on screen. Even the murder of King Aurvandil goes above and beyond just a few swipes of a weapon, and the rest of the film didn’t disappoint, either. If you saw your father killed, you would punish your enemies as ruthlessly as Amleth, and I loved all of the death scenes that rose to the level of creativity of The Walking Dead. Amleth’s Night Blade feeds for sure. Eggers depicts men as animalistic and unrelenting beasts with such scenes as Amleth and King Aurvandil on all fours in a weird ritual or a bunch of slaves dancing around a fire in a scene that easily could have come from The Witch. Cinematography and special effects combine to offer characters no place to hide, especially in a particularly intense sequence in which Amleth and his fellow warriors invade a village in an amazing single panning shot of the attack.
It’s almost a step into another movie when Amleth and Olga share a tender moment in a pond and ride away on horses, both against real-world backdrops that are as lush as any of the New Zealand locations in Peter Jackson’s J.R.R. Tolkien adaptations. Musicians Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough wowed me with their mixture of discordant sounds, drums and imaginative use of instruments. The soundtrack will be attractive to fans of such expansive scores. I resisted using this comparison until now, but with Amleth rising up from slave to pursue vengeance, elements of Gladiator infuse the plot as related works. Eggers probably needs some time off after this project. I had read that he wanted to pursue a new version of Nosferatu, and I’d love to see that. Of course, he can’t use Dafoe as the vampire because Dafoe already portrayed actor Max Schreck (the man behind one of the first cinematic bloodsuckers) in the biopic Shadow of the Vampire. If things get a little rocky with future projects, The Northman stands apart as an exhilarating, action-packed epic.