By the time the sumptuous and gnarly Viking revenge odyssey The Northman arrives at its “Gates of Hell” finale—a stupendously composed scene in which two bare, beastly and bloodthirsty men lunge and growl at each other on the skirts of an active volcano—you might wonder how many movies you have already watched to get to that point in director Robert Eggers’ violence-soaked fever dream. The answer is too many to count.
In other words, The Northman is an unapologetic, non-stop adventure that dispenses everything, everywhere, all at once. From Icelandic family sagas to Norse legends to supernatural myths, Eggers plays with the rich material at his disposal with a wide-eyed enthusiasm that’s both disarming and awe-inspiring. His approach feels a little bit like he knows it’s his one and only shot to make a film that should—or at least could—become one of the greatest examples of its kind, a Shakespearean drama wrapped in Old Norse vengeance. He evidences this laudable (if not overeager) commitment in every detail of the 136-minute epic, including spilled guts, sliced up human flesh, and spliced corpses, as well as an animalistic performance by Swedish heartthrob Alexander Skarsgård, who beefed up his muscle mass to play the merciless, score-settling Prince Amleth.
As a child in the fictitious island kingdom of Hrafnsey, Amleth’s warrior king father Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke, in a short but memorable part) inaugurates his son as his tribe’s future ruler in a psychedelic ceremony witnessed by the mad-eyed Heimir the Fool (a delirious Willem Dafoe). Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) soon murders his father and kidnaps his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman, in an increasingly substantial part of escalating wrath). But by the time Amleth becomes an adult, he has long forgotten his vow to avenge his father and rescue his mother, consumed instead by wreaking havoc on defenseless Slavic villages as a Viking.
It’s eventually the prophet Seeress (Björk, making her first non-Matthew Barney-related appearance on screen since Dancer In The Dark) who reminds Amleth of his familial mission, prompting him to blend in with Slavic slaves on the ship where he meets his romantic and intellectual match, the stonily alluring Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). After the film’s single moment of quiet—a gleamingly lensed coital scene between him and Olga—Amleth invades his uncle’s farm and begins to uncover deeper truths behind his father’s murder. A sequence of high-octane drama ensues between mother and son, as Kidman and Skarsgård stage the most bizarre Big Little Lies reunion imaginable.
At least from an ambition standpoint, Eggers’ devotion pays off in heaps. The Northman offers a lot to enjoy in what is a lot of movie. It features both see-it-to-believe-it “fuck yeah!” gruesomeness in its 10th Century tale and the kind of historical and mythical attention to detail to be expected from Eggers, the A24-endorsed, indie genre virtuoso of The Witch and The Lighthouse as he plays in a $90 million sandbox for the first time. Regardless of its financial returns, that price tag on a fiercely original film feels like good news in an industry that too frequently only opens its purse to spandex-clad superheroes and pre-existing IP.
This fact alone makes The Northman a rarity worth embracing, even if Eggers’ third feature—arguably his most “commercial” one yet—doesn’t strike an emotional chord as clear as the atmospherically insidious The Witch or The Lighthouse’s claustrophobic madness. Here, he conceals the film’s beating heart beneath returning Eggers collaborator Craig Lathrop’s primordial, meticulously textured production design and Jarin Blaschke’s hallucinogenic cinematography, the anything-but-raw materials that repeatedly produce impeccably choreographed set pieces constructed shot in unflinchingly long takes. By comparison, the simplistic script by Eggers and Swedish poet and writer Sjón (Lamb) avoids going too deeply into its characters’ untamed urges while its story taps the same well that Shakespeare drew from for Hamlet.
What also doesn’t help is Eggers’ unwavering, full-throttle maximalism, an approach that unflatteringly dovetails into two additional otherwise first-rate films currently in theaters: Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert’s aforementioned multiverse family caper Everything Everywhere All At Once and Michael Bay’s old-school action flick Ambulance. One wonders if this trend toward cinematic excess is an artistic act of disobedience against the sameness of corporate franchises, or simply a response to two-plus years of filmmakers (much less audiences) being cooped up in their homes.
Regardless, The Northman is still a lot of fun scene by scene, even without a strong through line connecting them all. Though lacking a well-realized emotional register, the film achieves an elemental, opulent vibe that splits the difference between Braveheart and Gladiator, or maybe The Revenant and The Lion King. Meanwhile, Eggers and Sjón infuse the dialogue with a light, giggly touch that leavens the film’s heavy visuals with self-conscious humor.
Consequently, Eggers’ immersive approach and stylistic flair creates one wild, applause-worthy combat scene after another, reminding viewers why he’s one of the most unique visual artists working today. While The Northman isn’t his best film, it’s probably his most, putting absolutely everything on screen at the biggest scale to tell the most brutal, and beautiful, story possible.