A sword fight within the depths of a fiery volcano. Ethan Hawke crawling around on all fours and barking like a dog. A screeching Valkyrie riding into heavens. A prisoner bound and gagged by the innards of another victim. Björk appearing in her first feature film in over 15 years as a Seeress, adorned in a feather headdress, missing her eyes, and reciting prophecies. Anya Taylor Joy cooking with psychedelic mushrooms, instances of incest, and Willem Dafoe being a lil weirdo. A bevy of surreal sights pepper director Robert Egger’s Viking epic “The Northman,” which otherwise adheres to the grit and grime of the time period to an almost startlingly visceral degree. To call “The Northman” rote doesn’t feel quite fair, even though this revenge tale, when stripped to its core, undoubtedly feels familiar: Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with Icelandic novelist Sjón, based the story on the legend of Amleth, which in turn served as Shakespeare’s inspiration for Hamlet. But while “The Northman” straddles arthouse and mainstream more than his distinctly weird previous two features, “The VVitch” and “The Lighthouse,” there’s never a moment where the scope of Eggers’ vision isn’t awe-inspiring.
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth, a Viking prince who, as a child (played by Oscar Novak), watches his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) be murdered by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Amleth escapes the havoc and runs away, vowing to avenge his father and save his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) by killing his uncle Fjölnir.
Years later, Amleth discovers that Fjölnir is living in exile in Iceland, now married to Amleth’s mother, who bore him a son. Amleth disguises himself as a slave to get close to the family and befriends another slave, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who claims to be a sorceress and aids Amleth in his quest. It’s a straightforward plot, outside of a delicious third act twist that allows Kidman to be nasty in a way no other projects have allowed her the room to do in quite some time (although rather than veering the story in an unpredictable new direction, that twist only momentarily throws Amleth—and the audience—off). But zig-zagging across Amleth’s one-track mind are heady images and those aforementioned strange moments that engage with Norse mythology and lift this otherwise grounded tale to a place that likely could have stemmed from no other mind than Eggers’. Jarin Blaschke once again serves as Eggers’ cinematographer, and he creates staggering images from a variety of sets and locales, from dimly lit interiors to expansive landscapes, the cool darkness of a forest to the heat of a volcano.
“The Northman” is also exceptionally well-cast, and it’s exciting to see—and a testament to the intrigue that surely surrounds Eggers’ work—familiar faces like Dafoe and Hawke appearing ever so briefly. This is Skarsgård’s movie (the actor has apparently wanted to make a Viking film for years now), and he appropriately lets his hulking frame and worn features capture the bulk of the nuances of his character, his gruff, low voice only occasionally heard in the few lines of dialogue he has. But it’s the women—characters so often sidelined in stories from this period—who emerge with the most memorable moments. As previously mentioned, Kidman has what may be the big scene of the movie, but Taylor-Joy’s delicate, elven-like features and the mystique she imbues her voice and mannerisms with are well-suited to embodying someone close to magic, and while she and Skarsgård don’t exactly exhibit explicit romantic chemistry, it is easy to see from their back-and-forths in their earliest scenes together that their characters’ fates are intertwined.
“The Northman” is violent and strange and dreary, and yet it ends on a semi-hopeful note that satisfyingly caps a story that is for the most part pretty easy to predict where it is headed. There’s a part of me that speculates what “The Northman” could have been had Eggers been given even more freedom to create the film he had in mind (the filmmaker has already griped in interviews about how the studio didn’t allow him to portray the amount of nudity he wanted). But most of me is just happy to see a director with a clear and exhilarating vision being given the go-ahead to make a movie that the majority of the general movie-going public won’t find entirely accessible on such a grand scale.
“The Northman” is now playing in theaters. Runtime: 137 minutes. Rated R.