There’s a poetry to Robert Eggers’ language. As a storyteller, his incredibly detailed world has a gravitational pull toward excellence. It comes through in his dialogue, camera framing and immersive production design. And although his latest, The Northman, is a classic tale as old as time, Eggers bakes a brutal cake layered with meaning, incredibly rewarding themes, and a grand sense of mystery. Like Eggers’ previous work (The Witch and The Lighthouse), The Northman is wicked and delightfully weird without ever losing its grip on being a compelling character study engulfed in dazzling imagery – and it’s his best film to date.
The Focus Features’ Viking epic follows Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) on the verge of becoming a man when his father (Ethan Hawke) is ferociously murdered by his uncle (a terrific Claes Bang of The Square). Amleth’s uncle kidnaps Prince Amleth’s mother (an award-worthy Nicole Kidman), leaving his world upside down as he tries to find his place in it. Raised with tremendous hate in his heart for the next 20 years, Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is ready to exact revenge and take back what’s been stolen from him.
Compared to Eggers’ previous two films, The Northman is his most straightforward narrative. However, that doesn’t hinder the experience one bit. Eggers' films are mesmerizing because of the haunting and psychedelic imagery and detail. The Witch and The Lighthouse both feature images that will continue to live on, and The Northman is no different.
There’s a scene involving children that will stick and really upset some people. It’s incredibly dark and brutal, but it raises interesting questions about where the line is for Amleth? He is someone so consumed with hate that he’s strategic about everything, making the basic need to be human feel nonexistent. This is perfectly visualized in a scene where he cries his last tear as a child.
And what kind of Eggers movie would this be if it didn’t dip into the supernatural? This is an arena that Eggers excels in as a filmmaker. Anything that feels otherworldly is always grounded because of his navigational skills with tone. He can show you the most disturbing material and still have you eager to see where the story goes.
One terrific duel between Amleth and a giant, undead entity will excite those who have a taste for the weird. But the sequence also pumps the brakes with its follow-through. All these larger-than-life experiences have a reason for going to the extreme. For instance, the fight scene mentioned above could be read as an internal battle to prove Amleth’s worthiness in receiving heroic gifts (like a sword). Eggers is cautious about blurring the lines between fantasy and reality.
Performance-wise, so much can be said about Skarsgård’s beastly take. Not only does he tap into the complex emotions of a man trying to fulfill a promise and have a legacy of his own, but he also brings so much physically to the role that’s intoxicating. One scene when he catches a spear and throws it right back to its sender is chilling. How Skarsgård walks (in a slow, deliberate, and blood-thirsty manner) is something that deserves to be decorated in gold. You’ll believe Amleth’s pain 100 percent.
But it is Kidman who gives the most surprising turn of the film. It’s been some time since she’s gone to this level. She accomplishes so much in such little screen time, primarily in a scene near the film’s last third, which is one of the most powerfully constructed and acted moments in any movie ever. You’ll know it when you see it because you’ll feel a fire build within you.
The Northman may not pull everyone in at once, but it will have some serious legs. More and more people will discover it over time, and those who do will sing its praises far and wide. It’s an old story, older than Hamlet. (Hamlet, with his similar sounding name, is actually based on Amleth’s journey.) But there’s such a freshness to its view on fatherhood and what we lose along the way. There’s also a lot to admire and learn, like how the younger generation sees the older generation as having more integrity for having faced a harder world.
Plug into its cinematic power and feel the whirlwind of its bone-breaking vision. It’s the most confounding studio film of the year.