Who doesn’t love a revenge movie? We all wait for that climactic moment when Charles Bronson finally does in the bad guys – as the anti-hero of the Death Wish franchise or as the excellent “man with the harmonica” in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Or when John Wick just loses it to avenge his beloved dog. They all contain that ever so gratifying violence that gets our revenge endorphins exploding in our pleasure centers. Writer/director Robert Egger’s The Northman continues this tradition in the form of a Viking epic, complete with metal clanging, really loud grunting, and lots of bloody pillaging.
Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Northman is based on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth. Set in medieval times, Alexander Skarsgård plays prince Amleth, the son of King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) who flees his homeland after the assassination of his father by his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Fjölnir assumes the throne and takes Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) as his wife. As the young Amleth (played by Oscar Novak) escapes, he vows to avenge the death of his father and save his mother from Fjölnir. Many years later, an older and extremely buff Amleth returns to his former kingdom. Pretending to be a simple-minded captive, he meets a beautiful slave (Anya Taylor-Joy) and together they conspire to fulfill his vow.
The Northman is Eggers’ third feature, coming off 2019’s mysterious (and funny) The Lighthouse and 2015’s arguable masterpiece The VVitch. With a hypnotic visual style and hyper-realism branded from his previous works, The Northman wears all the qualities of an epic saga – blood, guts, and all. Shot during the pandemic, there is a spectre of isolation and claustrophobia permeating throughout the film exacerbated by the surrounding hills of the Irish locales and the metaphysical dream sequences.
With a star-studded cast and comprehensible story, it is visual proof that Eggers can handle a huge epic production and major stars. The Northman, quite simply, is a pretty basic revenge story, albeit with a gloss that most mainstream moviegoers might appreciate. It has star-power, blood and gore, and truly mesmerizing visuals at times. What it lacks, however, is the mystique his two previous and lower-budget films had.
Written by Eggers and frequent Bjork collaborator Sjón, The Northman is fairly literal as it gets. There is no room for interpretation – what you see is what you get. But this is perhaps just in the nature of the story. Anyone familiar with Hamlet might see this as a dressed-up (or less dressed-up version) of that. Nowhere is the unseen dread of The VVitch, or the erotic strangeness of The Lighthouse.
With The Northman, Eggers has gone middle of the road. This is not to say it’s a bad film. In fact, I believe it may do very well at the box office and with audiences in general. But with all the finely choreographed violence and some very good performances (Kidman especially), The Northman felt a bit hollow and somewhat two-dimensional. Admittedly, most revenge films are. But we’ve seen all this before in Game of Thrones for example (although its series format allows room for character development). I do appreciate that we’re not watching Hamlet here. The Northman was built to be cinematic and that should help it breakthrough to general audiences.
Perhaps we are seeing an auteur’s journey into the Hollywood machine. Not every film can be small and personal and if anything, Eggers has shown that he is as reliable, capable, and talented as anyone. And with The Northman, Hollywood has gained a proven director. Here’s to hoping that his next feature is even better and more mysterious. Lest I say it – back to the weird.