The Northman Review: Robert Eggers Spins A Brutal Viking Epic With A Dash Of Eerie Shakespearean Tragedy

They say revenge is a dish best served cold. But Robert Eggers makes the very good case that revenge is best served on the bloodied backs of hulking Viking brutes, whose feral howls of rage cut through the gray, icy, unforgiving Nordic tundras, and whose quests for vengeance are besieged by witches and war on all sides.

"The Northman," Eggers' visceral Viking revenge epic, is his first foray into the action genre, and is unquestionably the most ambitious film the director of "The Witch" and "The Lighthouse" has made, and perhaps his least interesting. But Eggers' bold injection of surreal, brutish artistry into the action epic is still miles more exciting, invigorating, and daring than most other big-budget tentpoles hitting theaters today, and a reminder that there's still fresh ground to tread in the age-old revenge narrative.

Viking vengeance

"The Northman" stars Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, an exiled prince of a Viking kingdom in the North Atlantic who has vowed revenge on his uncle Fjölnir (a grimly stoic Claes Bang) after Fjölnir killed his father (Ethan Hawke, all gravelly gravitas) and kidnapped his mother (a scene-stealing Nicole Kidman, subtly bringing a sharp twistedness to the role). But Amleth (played in his youth by a wide-eyed Oscar Novak) escaped his fate by biting off the nose of the soldier that Fjölnir sent to kill him, leading the shamed soldier to claim that Amleth had died.

Twenty years later, Amleth has become a hardened member of a band of Viking berserkers (often shirtless, bloodied, and howling, like some kind of feral SWAT team) who regularly raid villages and capture slaves for various Nordic kings. After receiving a vision of an eyeless seer (Bjork, striking and terrifying in her brief big-screen return) who reminds him of his vow for vengeance, he hears that one group of slaves will be sent to King Fjölnir, whose stolen kingdom has been conquered and who now rules over little more than a farmstead in Iceland. Jolted back to life by this stroke of fate, Amleth cuts the long hair that marked him as a berserker and stows away as a slave on the boat toward Iceland, striking up an unexpected connection with fellow slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, magnificent and bewitching), who offers him her cunning mind and witch-like powers to aid his quest. But when he arrives in the barren land where the remains of his former kingdom now live, Amleth's quest takes a turn for the strange, as he embraces his fate as a vessel of cosmic righteousness and bloody, bloody divine punishment.

Skarsgård has never been better or more suited to a role than in "The Northman" which unleashes the actor's full Nordic might and a terrifying rage that he's rarely displayed onscreen before. He's equal turns haunted and hulking as Amleth, a force of pure vengeance who ends up softening throughout the film as he discovers reasons to live beyond his quest for revenge. It's a trickier role to nail than one might think — "The Northman" expects Skarsgård to be a likable protagonist who can bleed, and fear, and love, as well as a pure force of divine vengeance through which the film's more uncanny elements can play out. And Skarsgård, alternately stoic, soulful, and full-on feral, manages to do both.

Mythic meets realistic

To call "The Northman" a weird action epic is both underselling and overselling it. The film is Eggers' most accessible film yet, using the familiar structure of a revenge narrative to deliver surreal cosmic imagery and brief brushes with the fantastical, before returning to that "Hamlet"-style tragedy that we all know and love. More accurately, "The Northman" is like "Gladiator" crossed with "The Green Knight" — at once familiar and satisfying as a revenge story, and simultaneously baffling and beguiling. But for all the visions of a cackling, eye-less Bjork, or skeletal warriors that spring to life, or blue-eyed gods who scream in triumph as they ride through the skies, "The Northman" never quite makes the same bone-chilling, skin-crawling impact as Eggers' previous two films. There is little of the creeping ambiguity of "The Witch" or the wild debauchery of "The Lighthouse," though the bone-crunching gore and dashes of cosmic mystery prevent "The Northman" from being anything close to "mainstream." It's as if "The Green Knight" got passed through a "bro" filter, the glimpses of the supernatural made more palatable by the brutal male fantasy that constitutes a Viking revenge epic.

But even if the male fantasy elements overtake the weird fantasy parts of "The Northman," the two of them are far from incompatible — if anything, the combination heightens the singular vision that Eggers has for the film. The story simultaneously feels like a mythic age-old tale that has emerged from the bowels of the Earth — compounded by the film's bellowing, disembodied introduction, the visions of ghostly ancestors hanging from trees, the frequent flirtations with witchcraft — and like a grim, grounded war movie, in which the battle scenes play out in a slow, weighty, almost plodding manner, meticulously choreographed to be as brutish and realistic as possible. The film's gray, grimy color palette adds to this realistic approach, so palpable that it seeps over into the occasional flashes of the fantastical.

It's when the film meets between these two modes — the mythic and the realistic — that it's at its most thrilling. Early on, in a scene where Hawke's King Aurvandil and his supernaturally-gifted fool Heimir (Willem Dafoe, in full creature mode) induct Amleth into manhood through some kind of primal ritual where the three of them howl and snarl like wolves within a dimly lit cavern, it feels like "The Northman" has tapped into some terrifying beyond that feels unpredictable, unfathomable, and better left untouched. Sometimes the film walks this balance precariously, potentially alienating its audience with these more eerie touches, but that's when it feels truest to Eggers' vision of "The Northman," whatever it may be.

/Film Rating: 8.5 out of 10