From the Director of The VVitch… Valhalla Awaits
DIRECTED BY ROBERT EGGERS/2022
The Northman is nothing if not a feverishly realized Old World depiction of male aggression. Male aggression pushed to the limits of absolute animalistic savagery. Just how rampantly “male” are we talking? Let’s just say that if it’s true that the root of the term “sheath” stems from lady parts, one could postulate that for the men of this world, it had to have been the other way around. Meaning, the terminally bloodthirsty men had warrior relations with their swords long before ever giving a hoot about anything feminine. For them, female humanity doesn’t register. They’re far too busy fixating on who next needs to be brutally killed.
Don’t, however, mistake that for the logic of filmmaker Robert Eggers. Just as in his two previous films, The VVitch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), there’s an undercurrent that is unafraid to be hyper-critical of traditional masculinity and/or patriarchy. Yet, with The Northman– his most conventional film to date, though that is not saying much- the said feminist undercurrent is muted nearly to point of Impressionism… and occasional Impressionism, at that. It most assuredly is there, if simplistically distilled to levels of “women = life givers/men = life takers”. But then, there’s no accounting for an ultimately grotesque and go-for-broke twisted performance by Nicole Kidman as the protagonist’s displaced mother. Though lighting by fire does not behoove the venerable fearless actress, does she care? No she does not.
For the ever-increasing number of viewers who approach film first and foremost on the basis of representation, The Northman will likely register in the negative. Beginning smack in the middle of the miserable muddy Dark Ages (895 AD, to be as exact as possible), this Icelandic myth opts for historical whiteness in its relentless depictions of man’s gory inhumanity to man. In this, Eggers is interested in getting at what it means to hold power in such a place, what it’s worth, and to what lengths might one go to maintain or recover it. In such questing, what is to be gained, and what is likely to be lost?
Such concerns are buried but alive under layers of dismembered body parts and carrion. So pervasive is the macho teeth-gritting, guttural bellowing, and battle-charged warring that one worries how many incurious viewers will come away with all the wrong lessons. (This is not another 300). A takeaway worth sharing: Though The Northman wallows in testosterone-fueled conflict and confrontation (even a medieval sports match comes down to men clobbering each other HARD and kicking other men in the face when they’re down), the film is, beneath its own surface, completely critical of such mentality. Not unlike Ridley Scott’s recent The Last Duel, there’s a big fat degree of futility baked into the supercharged and animalistic masculinity.
The Northman (based upon the ancient myth of Amleth; screenplay by Eggers and the versitile author Sjòn) unfortunately falls short of the total back-in-time immersion sensation that Eggers brought to his previous films. The increased scope demands that digital visuals be employed to an unsubtle degree. This, coupled with the fact that The Northman is Eggers’ most comparatively vibrant film (again, that’s not saying much), makes for some too-sharp images. Just enough to momentarily nudge us back to 2022.
But, only momentarily. There’s more than enough weird paganism and unsorted sorcery here to engage even the most cross comer. The titular protagonist (Amleth himself), portrayed by Alexander Skarsgård (his character bearing no relation to the actor’s True Blood role, Eric Northman) as a muscular locomotive barely in control and full-to-overflowing with damaged goods, navigates his revenge quest with fume and fury.
As a boy of supposed royalty, his birthright is destroyed with the loss of his father (Ethan Hawke), very early in the film. His mother (Kidman) is taken away by the savage raiders (led by a coldly dead-eyed Claes Bang). His indoctrination, however- overseen by Willem Defoe in one of The Northman’s many bravura sequences- is already in place. (So many strange visions, supernatural ravens, and mystical cave dwellers sitting behind fires… It a time of magic bleeding into the time of man- but far too Nordic for Tolkien). To secure his entry to Valhalla, he must avenge the eradicated empire of dirt. To further complicate things, Amleth must eventually choose between a life with his lover (Anya Taylor-Joy) and his increasingly futile quest.
Those seeking a Game of Thrones-esque tale of power and myth are likely to be nearly as disappointed as they were with the previous such thing, David Lowery’s The Green Knight. In the growing Eggers canon, the memorably violent The Northman stands as necessary but also marred by occasional noticeable compromise, particularly in the rendering of the volcanic final battle. The intended extremity isn’t quite what it ought to be at the end in terms of flailing, repressing Viking masculinity coming to a head. In a movie that’s been paving its own way to this showdown with steady bursts of lava eruptions and swords being unsheathed, this sweaty, roaring, mad Norse skullbuster isn’t quite as balls-out as it wishes. Still though, it is a singular vision of a talented director who is well on his way to Valhalla.