The Friendly Film Fan Breaks Down the Latest from Director Robert Eggers.
In 2015, the Sundance Film Festival awarded its Best Director prize to one Robert Eggers, whose brilliant debut feature, The Witch, had just been shown to attendees, and was due for release in February after positive word spread from advanced screenings of the film. Eggers then quickly became somewhat of a curious name in the pantheon of auteur directors – at once a name to anticipate, yet entirely unpredictable as he began an era of singularity in filmmaking not seen since the early days of Ridley Scott (think Alien, Blade Runner). In fact, it was Eggers in large part who helped to usher in the horror heyday of indie studio A24, which distributed both The Witch and his subsequent masterwork, The Lighthouse. Committed completely to authenticity by way of period detail and an emphasis on realistic language, Eggers forged a path for himself with only two indie features under his belt, the latter of which received an Oscar nomination for cinematography. Enter Focus Features, with a larger playing field and a heftier budgetary capabilities than Eggers had yet experienced as a filmmaker, ready to take on the charge of bringing The Northman to the big screen. It may well be the smartest move the studio has ever made.
First viewed, The Northman can present something of a strange beast for the viewer: a tale of blood-soaked vengeance which fails to unleash the constancy of carnage its initial trailer insinuates (though it is nonetheless violent in bursts), but nevertheless remains as much an epic as director Robert Eggers ever could have promised, both in the scope of its narrative and the larger world it inhabits. Mythos and legend are not only alluded to but literalized as raven spirits and Allfathers appear on screen to assist Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) on his quest of vengeance; yet for all the bloodshed, there are equal parts mysticism and meditation to accompany it. Truthfully, with the state of the current blockbuster landscape, dominated by superheroes and held aloft by the scepter of IP, it would not scratch hyperbole to declare it a miracle that The Northman exists at all. And to exist in the state it does, a tentpole release imbued by near-total commitment to the authenticity of even its most disparate elements, an anomaly further.
What little fails to connect from Robert Egger’s latest delve into old-world cultures and hyper-specific language is a chunk of steel dropped atop the irons of filmmaking, its weight so miniscule it cannot hope to dent the material in a meaningful fashion, but a weight nonetheless. One scene of Nordic sport and a temporary slow-down of momentum aways into the second act (plus a slightly underdeveloped love story) is offset by breathtaking imagery, the film’s reverent dissection of vengeance as Viking lifestyle – along with all that entails – and a stunningly rendered Slavic raid, the intricacy of which is seldom seen in films of this scale. Patience may be required to endure Eggers’ two-hour revenge epic, but the film trusts its audience to find the experience withing such patience. Assisting the audience in this task is the work of Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, their drum-backed score echoing through the film’s soundscape as swords and shields are splintered and thrust, as spells are cast and vengeance sought.
Yet without its stars, especially those closest to the film’s burning center, The Northman would be nothing more than a glorified Game of Thrones spinoff episode. Skarsgård, who stars as the film’s titular protagonist, has gone on record many times about his journey to getting the film made, and his commitment to its existence is evident in every second of his beastly, often unhinged Amleth. He is animalistic, occasionally to an unnerving physical degree, but just as often contemplative, emotionally challenged in key moments where his vulnerability is given a chance to shine (though not quite as bright as his beastliness), often in close context to Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga, a performance that works on its own but still feels slightly off-key here. Nicole Kidman and Claes Bang, as well as an unusually imposing Ethan Hawke, fill out the supporting cast in expert fashion, while Willem Dafoe and Icelandic popstar Björk make the most of their time with naught but three scenes between them.
It can be a fool’s errand to attempt pinning down what makes Robert Eggers’ efforts in filmmaking succeed to such a high level only three films deep; perhaps it’s the commitment to authenticity, perhaps it’s the intimacy with which he tells such grandiose stories, but always, the explanation eludes those who respond to the director’s work the most. The Northman may not be an outright masterpiece, or even Eggers’ best film on the whole, but it is one of the most original and engaging true epics to hit theaters in quite some time. Those who insist Hollywood is “out of ideas” or “only ever makes sequels/reboots” would be fools to let it pass unseen. The dollar speaks in the movie world; let it sing the songs of the Valkyries.
I’m giving “The Northman” an 8.8/10.
- The Friendly Film Fan
Film critic in my free time. Film enthusiast in my down time. Writer for Bitesize Breakdown.