A hoard of outcast Vikings pillages a small town towards the end of the first act of Robert Egger’s The Northman. We see their blood soaked brutality savage an entire Slavic community, as we watch a young protagonist, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), kill men defending this city against the invasion he and his fellow makeshift warriors are commanded to do. There are no morals to these actions, this is a time of divide and concur, where there were no negotiations. Within this mayhem, as the last enemy has been slain, Amleth, sees a son ripped away from his mother. As her cries bellow throughout the center of the city, the camera moves with the young man as it leads him to a similar predicament Amleth finds himself into now. The town burning to the ground, we realize that through this violence is a vicious circle of horrific sadness that runs deep in this world, where revenge dominants all judgements, and clouds the main character’s mind. Somber and still, Amleth realizes the ramifications his actions lead to, that of a broken world, loss of all whom he holds dear, leaving him with nothing but anger in place of where his heart used to be. Thus he must right the wrongs of the past in order to prevent moments like this from happening again.
Years before he was a cunning, skilled combatant, Amleth was a prince, set to rule the kingdom his father King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) presides over. His mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), watches him like a hawk, making sure he is ready to take the thrown for his father, whose lust for combat could lead to his downfall. Upon the kings return from battle, with his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) by his side, the father-son duo embrace and set out later in the night, after much celebrating, into the darkness of a nearby forest to perform a ritual that will bond them as more than family, but as kings. With the assistance of the king’s fool Heimir (Willem Dafoe), this act is completed with the condition of Amleth swearing to the gods that if his father is killed, he will avenge him.
As it ends, and they are leaving the sacred grounds, they are ambushed, though Amleth is able to escape just enough to see his uncle Fjölnir betray his family and the throne by killing King Aurvandill, and taking his place upon the throne, and kidnapping Queen Gudrún as his own bride. Racing out of the forest, through the place he called home, landing into a small boat, Amleth heart turns black, and thus his lust for retribution is born. “I will avenge you Father. I will save you Mother. I will kill you Fjölnir,” he repeats as a mantra. And so, as a grown man, after a vision by a seeress (Björk, making a rare return to film) reminding him of his oath, he realizes he is more than ready to go toe to toe with any obstacle in his way to get the vindication for his father and mother. He disguises himself as a slave on a ship heading towards an island where his uncle has deserted to after his traitorous actions lead to his dismissal of being king and forced him into exile, with Queen Gurdún and his two sons. Along the way, he builds a partnership that leads to romance with a fellow slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a sorceress whom helps him carry out his revenge. As he arrives and he builds trust with Fjölnir and those around him, this is when Amleth strikes, trying to find his internal and ancestral satisfaction, one slash of his mighty sword at a time.
Much of The Northman’s 136-minute runtime is spent delicately juggling between being two kinds of movies. The first movie is a Robert Eggers movie. If you have seen the last two efforts from this indie filmmaker, The Witch and The Lighthouse, then you already know he is not the most conventional of artists. Within whatever subject matter, time period and location he is presenting his audience, Eggers builds a wholly original world that you may have never seen before, and brings a unique voice we are desperately in need of in modern cinema. He’s one of the most detailed oriented directors working today and you can see every ounce of that attention to detail presented in every frame of this film. While it does feel like some creative concessions were made given the grand scale of this project, there is no denying that fans of the director will be left satisfied given how grand and gorgeous it looks and feels thanks to Egger’s vision alongside Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography.
The second is a traditional, $75M Hollywood epic set in the world of Vikings, with a story taken straight out of Shakespearian lore: Hamlet the greatest story ever told about revenge. Eggers and co-writer Sjón use this familiar tale to tell a new story about male rage and the naiveté surrounding the notion of a child’s revenge being far more complicated than they could’ve ever imagined. By doing this, it brings into question the ideas of idols and how holding up people, the most flawed creature to ever roam our planet, to outrageous expectations can lead to a sense of loneliness and confusion, thus being psychologically trapped. When revelations of his family’s past are presented at his feet, Amleth is shook to his core, and thus has to learn that it’s not about correcting the past, but about making a future worth protecting, even if the results of both paths intersect. It’s powerful, profound and touching when this simple, efficient story and brilliant acting all comes together in the end with one of the best final face offs we’ve seen in some time, lead by a impressive duel to the death mixed with a pulse-pounding score by composers Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough.
It doesn’t always succeed in its balancing act, as the two halves seem a little distanced from each other but this is a minor hiccup in an otherwise grand experience. The Northman is a brooding, fierce revenge flick and a bold, modern epic made by a unique visionary storyteller that simultaneously challenges and entertains.
Focus Features will release The Northman only in theaters on April 22.
Photo: Aidan Monaghan / Focus Features