‘Northman’ a sloppy, gory mess of perfect filmmaking shot for the halls of Valhalla

A full-throated scream of an action film. Images courtesy Focus Features.

10/10 The Northman is the wildest action movie since Mad Max: Fury Road. Film is art supposed to evoke an emotion, and the emotion The Northman evokes is incoherent screaming. Within the first half hour, I wanted to smash my head through a concrete wall.

The west coast of Norway, 875- There’s something rotten in the state of the North Atlantic. Fjölnir (Claes Bang) has killed his brother, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), and taken his wife, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), as his own. Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) facing beheading himself, stows away to the land of the Rus. Years later, Amleth the Bear-Wolf (Alexander Skarsgård, who also produces) inserts himself as a slave of Fjölnir the Brotherless, now exiled in southern Iceland, to exact his revenge.

Someone said you need a master’s in Viking history to understand The Northman, but it’s a stupid-simple movie. It is a revenge drama with a full-throated emphasis on the “revenge,” a party of crazy, turbo ultra-violence, a carnival of bloodshed. In contrast with films of the past couple of decades, where examining the impact of violence within the story world is a strongly enforced norm, The Northman’s violence is joyous. It portrays a world where conquest, mass murder and slavery are facts of life, and while nobody’s exactly happy about it, nobody’s agitating for unionization or democracy. They’re fighting furiously for survival within this system.

At the same time, there’s a master’s course worth of history on display in The Northman, even if it never slows down to explain in detail. Just about every scene has something in it worth investigating, but you don’t need to know exactly what a he-witch is to know when you’re looking at one.

This is probably the greatest throughline for writer/director/producer Robert Eggers, who is following up his celebrated indie films The Witch and The Lighthouse with his first blockbuster-sized feature in The Northman. The Witch is credited for introducing folk-horror to the mainstream and already has a dozen of what seem to be direct imitators, and it also leaned heavily on Puritan superstition, portraying a world so drenched in Christianity that even most Americans weren’t prepared for it.

Skarsgård turned himself into a hulking, lopsided monster of muscle for the role, both physically and mentally. His performance, which seems to come from a trance-like state where this kind of action-violence is as casual as he makes it look, carries the film and fills in a lot of its character.  

The Lighthouse demonstrates a similar understanding of maritime customs, but The Northman takes mythmaking to its highest possible level. It’s not about whether or not Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) is actually a witch, Amleth actually fights a 12-foot-tall zombie for his cursed blade or how connected Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe) is to the volcano Hekla, it’s how gracefully the movie uses film language to bring up these possibilities. The magical elements of Norse mythology are simply present and part of the world as presented onscreen.

The real key that sets Eggers apart is ambition. He demonstrates a commitment to thorough writing and hardcore, on-location production that is just non-existent for so much of commercial filmmaking. His movies aren’t just themed, every character and set is drenched in detail. A big part of what makes The Northman such a crazy and effective action film is Eggers’ and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s commitment to doing as much as possible in one-shots. Watching an entire invasion and its aftermath choreographed into two shots, both of which capture the entire village and most of the combatants, and knowing the director has said doing this massive dance was the only way to keep the shoot interesting for him is a hell of a thing. One-shots that appear to increase in ambition as they continue are seemingly everywhere in the film once you start to look for them.

When questions about the morality of Amleth’s revenge crash into the plot late, it’s also not any kind of dogma about the cycle of violence, but questions about his interpretation of the inciting incident and introducing other ways he could be spending his energy. Both of these plot elements revolve around love, which The Northman uses to examine the consequences of its central quest in the most personal possible way – while losing none of its fun. 

William Shakespeare based “Hamlet” on the legend of Amleth, and The Northman has a keen Shakespearean edge to it, not just in magnitude but dialogue and attitude. Many lines are surprisingly poetic, and the scene-to-scene structure feels distinctly like the Bard’s work – despite the robust onscreen cast, most scenes consist of Amleth’s private conversations or asides, either sweet words for inanimate objects or visions that only he sees. Destiny plays a huge role in The Northman, as Amleth is told his fate from a young age, and it’s a strange dynamic. Amleth has been told he will kill Fjölnir on a lake of fire with a cursed sword that can only be unsheathed at night, so he decides to hold up a bit once he gets to Iceland, but it’s not a completely solid decision. At some points, he seems to be ready to strike earlier, but is stopped somehow, fate enforced by coincidence in moments when Amleth doesn’t embrace it. The possibility of another reading of his destiny or him turning against it is another angle the movie eventually twists to address.

What also makes The Northman cinematic is its emphasis on square-framed close-ups – just about every dialogue scene that doesn’t otherwise need its blocking goes back to shots like this. There’s a growing argument that it’s close-ups, the human face blown up to impossible proportion on the big screen, that we really stand to lose in the streaming revolution. The Northman should be seen in theaters multiple times for several other reasons as well.  

For its astonishing action-violence, its constant close-ups, its commitment to on-location, in-camera stuntwork, Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s robust Viking score and a host of other different reasons, The Northman demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible. It took some PLFs away from the floundering Harry Potter movie to keep them warm for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, and that’s the biggest tension point in The Northman’s complicated relationship with modern superhero movies – it is one.

It’s got a big, blue-and-orange character composite superhero poster. It’s marketed as an action movie in an era where almost all action is based in comic books. It may not have major studio backing or comic book lore, but Amleth is every inch a comic book superhero, and The Northman’s bold, devil-may-care mixture of realism and fantasy is the perfect alchemy that turn-of-the-century comic book movies tried to create. Eggers yielded a degree of control to Universal for the first time in his filmmaking career in exchange for a bigger budget – though this still cost less than half of what Marvel movies can run – the kind of control directors usually have to give up to be in charge of a closely guarded comic book property.

But the locations, full-scale sets and in-camera stuntwork are throwbacks to filmmaking processes that have mostly been abandoned by profit-driven megafranchises, even though they tend to be much more expensive, not to mention the graphic gore and religious and sexual subject matter Disney would never dream of approaching.

It’s like, in a great river of film history, The Northman dances and screams in an eddy between the major blockbuster and the desperate independent film where no water should be able to reach. It is simply better than just about anything else getting made right now, both more grand and less expensive, both more effective at the surface level and more emotional and complex. This is a miraculous unicorn of a film that also makes it look so easy it calls into question why they aren’t all this good. See it on the biggest screen you can find as often as you can.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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