Rarely is something so gnarly that it gives me pause but…here we are. And I loved every grimy, mean minute of it.
It’s fitting that Eggers has taken on the tale that inspired Hamlet for his third feature, given his penchant for period pieces that are as accurate as any modern director can get. It’s caked in blood and mud in equal proportions, hanging from his world and characters as though wounded flesh that at any moment might tear away. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) does plenty of tearing through flesh during his 137-minute adventure, but it’s the quiet moments between the flinging of viscera that serve as a reminder that there are depths inside this brick shithouse of a human being. It helps that much of Amleth’s humanity rests in his developing feelings for Olda (Anya Taylor-Joy), the slave girl that he’s becomes his partner in crime and eventual lover. She’ll serve not only as an aid to his quest but as reminder that his vengeance was not the only one path laid before him.
It’s a very Shakespearean story that Eggers has crafted (fine, since it served as the basis for one) and he holds nothing back. Amleth’s only mantra, for at least the first half of the film, is the driving force of his early character. “I will avenge you father; I will save you mother; I will kill you Fjölnir,” rings empty at first despite where we know this story is going. It’s not until a one-scene appearance by Björk as a seeress that we are off to the races.
Let’s talk one scene performances in this movie! Björk hasn’t graced screens in a narrative film for over twenty years, but she steps into the costuming here like an absolute champ and kills it. She’s equaled by Willem Dafoe, a goblin of a man that can sniff your farts and see your cunning or offer you mead and force you to break your mind free of Valhalla. We don’t often get character actors doing small parts like this, but Eggers is one of few remaining that knows how to properly utilize these kinds of performers and get gold out of them.
While there are a lot of quiet conversations in The Northman they serve only as buffers to make character between moments of extreme violence. A Viking version of Cricket gives way to Skarsgård and Taylor-Joy smashing in the forest, a comedic conversation with the skull of a long-dead friend gives way to the hunt for a legendary undead blade, and dreams crawl up the tree of Yggdrasil on the back of a Valkyrie’s steed. It’s a broad encompassing of so many different ideas that feel fresh because of the notes they try to play in a larger symphony. Eggers made sure everyone knew how funny he was with The Lighthouse (the “Triton speech” and constant fart jokes are always hilarious), but here he’s able to weave humor and pain into an epic that always feels of a piece with his work. Just…his work with a $90m budget this time. Action or conversation, it doesn’t matter as everything looks gorgeous and expensive.
While the film could drag for some viewers at points I felt none of that. The Northman is as exhilarating as it is calming. That sound odd? It should, as it’s such a jarring sensation to sit through in the theatre. Even the score serves a heaping helping of whiplash as it pops back and forth between a mouth harp to thundering drums (which, just being honest here, are probably just a percussionist using mallets on Skarsgård’s muscles because he’s so huge). It’s all stew of big ideas, personal emotion, and just enough hint of the supernatural to thrill and unsettle. The Northman is a strange epic, but it’s one that I think you’ll all find personally rewarding.
The Northman is currently in theatres.