‘The Northman’ Is Strange, Repulsive, and Captivating

Robert Eggers uses his near-maniacal attention to detail to bring us a heroically violent revenge story

Robert Rubsam
Vikings With Abs

It is a cold, snowy night in the late 10th century and a young boy stands on a bleak headland, waiting for his father to return from war. He is a prince, and his father the king. Soon enough the king will be dead, decapitated by his brother, and the boy will flee to the ocean. But for now there will be feasting, and sacrificing, and Willem Dafoe as a shaman-jester drinking Viking acid and howling like a dog. There’s even a fart joke.

Yes, it’s The Northman, at last. The third film from director Robert Eggers has been long in coming, delayed by COVID and test audiences who found themselves perplexed by all these weird guys from the past. Eggers made his mark with The Witch and The Lighthouse, small-scale horror tales of old-timey people coming apart in remote places under the pressure of the elements and the deviously sexy supernatural. But The Northman marks a major leap in both scope and ambition, an expensive production with a sprawling cast, massive sets, and more than a few meticulously recreated Viking longships.

While he works in genre, Eggers is a distinctly formalist filmmaker who prizes aesthetic precision and historical accuracy over such paltry concerns as “narrative coherence” and “audience comprehension.” His dialogue is drawn from period sources, his shots are long, and he embraces the sort of detail-oriented obsessions that might appeal to a Daniel Day-Lewis. The Witch’s sets were all constructed with period-accurate tools; they actually built a working lighthouse on a Canadian peninsula; The Northman kept multiple archeologists on retainer. This is probably as close as we’re going to get to the age of the Sagas, on-screen and off-; I’m sure his sets could be turned into museum pieces and few people would notice.

He has used it all to tell a deeply strange, almost heroically violent revenge story about an impossibly ripped Norseman. After witnessing his father’s murder, young Prince Amleth flees into the storm-tossed North Atlantic, swearing to avenge the father, save the mother, and kill the uncle. But when we pick up with him, as the rune-lettered intertitles inform us, “some years later,” grown Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) has strayed from the path. He has joined a Viking raiding party and gotten into incredible shape, but lacks purpose. When he learns that his uncle has fled to the wilds of Iceland, he cuts off his hair, brands himself as a slave, and ships off to follow his fate.

As one smarty pants described it after my screening: it’s Beowulf meets Hamlet. Except that it actually is Hamlet, or at the least the story, from the History of the Danes, on which Shakespeare based his play. There are some key differences: no play-acting, no soliloquies, and no existential doubts. That said, I don’t remember Hamlet howling like a wolf, decapitating an undead warrior, or bashing in another man’s skull with his own, so it’s not all a loss.

For almost two and a half hours The Northman keeps transforming, from period piece to war epic to wilderness survival story to vision quest to horror movie, finding new modes of expression whenever the story threatens to drag. Eggers essentially restages The Witch, only with Amleth as the supernatural force threatening a family on the edge of the wilderness. The film is a genuine visual marvel, its period-perfect sets lit by leaping bonfires, its scenes of violence approaching the grotesque and nightmarish. It reminds you how few directors care to actually compose their shots, or to place their actors in the real world, which is to say: it makes pretty much every other recent blockbuster look like dogshit.

Eggers is a distinctly formalist filmmaker who prizes aesthetic precision and historical accuracy over such paltry concerns as “narrative coherence” and “audience comprehension.”

From the very first shot Eggers throws viewers straight into the deep end. His film does not explain; it inundates. Ancient gods, esoteric rituals, archaic diction, codes of honor and violence: all of it passes without a pause. Amleth receives key instructions from three separate shamans. He allies with a blue fox and breaks into an Icelandic boat burial. Multiple people are sacrificed on-camera. Accents are thick and obscured by the gut-rattling and near-omnipresent score. You just have to keep up.

It calls to mind The Virgin Spring, Ingmar Bergman’s 1960 film of revenge and regret. Set in a medieval Norse world transitioning, however uncomfortably, from one cosmology to another, Spring remains one of the more viscerally uncomfortable experiences in cinema, asking us to watch first as a young girl is raped and murdered, and then as her father, wild with impotent grief, slaughters the perpetrators in their sleep. The film ends with a miracle: when the family retrieves the girl’s body, a spring rises up from the ground, and they fall to their knees at this gift from a truly incomprehensible God. Spring endures because nothing in the story operates as it should: the holy child dies in the forest; the righteous father avenges himself upon another innocent. The world it presents is both very cold,very moral, and very strange.

The Northman is generally best when it leans into this strangeness, allowing the past to appear as an alien and alienating place. In an early sequence, the grown Amleth takes part in a raid on a village in the lands of the Rus. Drenched by a thunderstorm, the Viking warriors screech and howl, virtually transforming themselves into wolves around a blazing bonfire as a chorus of throat singers pings out around them. It’s pure Heavy Metal, with more than a bit of Wagner thrown in for good measure. Yet they are not performing: their attack is genuinely animalistic, slaughtering men and women, old and young, overpowered by their bloodlust.

This might sound unbearable for a movie of this length on this scale. But Eggers takes his material so seriously, and views his characters with so little judgment, that The Northman transcends our meathead assumptions. It doesn’t tell a story about overcoming hatred, or finding inner peace. The Northman might be one of the most amoral movies ever produced by Hollywood. Horrible events pass without comment. The violence in this movie isn’t exactly fun, but it isn’t meant to scold or to disturb, either. These characters live in a world entirely beyond their control, their moral logic governed by fate and a whole pantheon known mostly, these days, to mythology kids and some less savory types.

In modern times, Norse iconography has held a strong pull for reactionaries of all stripes. In their eyes, Norse culture represents an apex of uncorrupted white civilization, full of gods and rituals rooted in mystical landscapes, freed of malign outside influences (read: Jews). The Nazi ideologues designed rituals and emblems based on an imagined pre-Christian, even pre-Roman culture. Scandinavian Black Metal musicians fused Viking tropes with anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Modern day American Odinists embrace an impoverished vision of the Norse past as a land of both cultural and racial purity.

But the past is so much more expansive than their vicious little imaginations can fathom. After all, what is a Stormfront poster to a Norse god? In an interview with Nate Jones, Eggers explained how his reluctance to tackle a culture beloved by white supremacists was overcome by actually engaging with what that culture had to say about itself. “[The Norse were] not thinking or behaving the way I would,” he explains, “but they [were] multi-dimensional people,” not mere symbols for the simple-minded. His film hints at a vast world beyond its particular story, full of forces — mystical, political, religious — from a time far before our own. The past is more than what we make of it; the past doesn’t think about us at all.

I don’t want to overstate things. Whatever his lofty aspirations, Eggers has yet to really touch his influences. The Virgin Spring provides its viewers with a seemingly simple moral dilemma, and then complicates it again and again; The Northman seems comfortable just displaying the gruesome results. You squirm with disgust, not discomfort. Perhaps his tastes as an image-maker and craftsman overwhelm whatever deeper emotional notes his material might pluck.

Yet he’s constructed a blockbuster of grand ambition that never flags and rarely falters. For two-plus hours I rarely left the hell yeah zone. That seems achievement enough.

Robert Rubsam writes fiction and criticism.