Fate is a fickle thing if you chose to believe in it. You may be guided by some sort of idea that your life is a set path with points you are destined to hit. What if that destiny is fueled by a bloodlust for revenge against someone who wronged you? What if everything wasn’t so black and white though? Robert Eggers’ The Northman is just that, an absolutely brutal but beautiful thriller with revenge at it’s throne. It is Eggers’ first film that will appeal to a larger audience with its breathtaking directing, performances, and a story that keeps you engaged until the credits roll.
As Prince Amleth is taking his first steps towards adulthood in The Northman, everything is quickly stolen from him as his father is murdered. The Hamlet vibes kick off when we learn it is his uncle who slayed his father and stole his mother from him. Amleth spends the next two decades becoming a viking raider who knows nothing but brutality. A seeress reminds him of the vow he made to avenge his father and take back what was once his. But nothing is ever that simple.
It is no secret that I love Robert Eggers so I do not want you to think I am bias towards this film because I will say it plainly: The Northman is the first film I would actually suggest for someone to watch who isn’t into the weirder side of film. While I love The Lighthouse, it’s not a film I would ever tell my parents or a casual friend to go see. There is a level of inaccessibility to that film the average film goer may not enjoy as much as they would this film. The Northman on the other hand has Eggers’ love of the fantastical on full display while still being an easier to follow film that examines revenge and fate. The film has Eggers’ incredible directing running at 100% the entire time with beautiful haunting close ups of the actors seething with rage or quietly working through the nightmare they’re in. The beauty of shots of the island from The Lighthouse or the village in The Witch are turned up a hundred notches with the breathtaking, sweeping landscape of Iceland. Eggers’ directing, along with director of photography Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography, captures the beauty of its actors and the lands in which it takes place.
Even though The Northman is beautiful, the duo who worked together on The Lighthouse and The Witch still bring the absurd unsettling moments they are known for. I am avoiding story spoilers but in the trailers you are given glimpses of a scene with Willem Dafoe that looks like a dream sequence. The scene takes place towards the start of the film but it has stuck in my mind since. Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe deliver a truly wild scene of instilling the ideals of a king into the young Amleth. It’s a scene only Eggers could pull off and not be seen as a joke, it’s a beautiful, truly wild ride that sets your expectations for the journey ahead for young Amleth.
Once we find Amleth as an adult in The Northman, we get to see Alexander Skarsgård essentially become a wolf. The dedication to the art of war practiced by the Vikings is incredible. The first action sequence is one of the most violent scenes I have seen in a film in such a long time. I do think some of the violence in the film could be seen as going too far but it works to make it clear all Amleth knows is what he has been taught as a viking. The group are known to be quite violent so it made sense as I watched but some of it may leave you sick to your stomach if you are not accustomed to seeing such depictions of violence.
I do not want to speak to the Norse aspects of The Northman as I have little background in them but the fantastical elements of gods and valkyries appears through the film. You can question if they are truly happening or not but they’re incredible sequences that drive the belief Amleth has in this fate set forward for him. When Amleth sees his families history as a tree, I was just floored by the beautify and uniqueness of the sequence.
Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy have incredible chemistry in The Northman as they both meet under horrible circumstances but slowly work to help one another with their goals. Anya Taylor-Joy’s character; Olga of the Birch Forest, notes that she is much more cunning then Amleth, and from that point we see their distinct approaches to each’s problems. Both give fantastic performances alongside one another with one being of mind and magic while the other is of muscle and steel. Watching them grow closer is a wonderful aspect of the film as we question if Amleth is capable of anything other than violence. Is there more to Amleth than the monster he has become?
The Northman‘s score by Sebastian Gainsborough and Robin Carolan is a huge driving force behind many of it’s scenes. It seems as if this is their first large outing as composers which does not show in the majesty of the score itself. Their music seems definitive of the lands we are sprawling over in the film that moves as quickly as the film itself.
I could not do a film review of anything featuring Willem Dafoe without giving him his own section. His performance in the film is brief but memorable. His character serves as former King Aurvandil War-Raven’s jester /advisor from what we see. The King says there is always wisdom from a fool and helps him teach young Amleth what he needs before his fate starts to unroll. The scenes depicted in the trailer of an almost floating head sequence where the King and Dafoe speak to the prince are where Dafoe’s acting abilities are put on display. No actor has the range of facial expression that Dafoe displays. From intense joy to an unsettling smirk or jeer, Dafoe brings the thunder in his limited amount of screen time.
The Northman is a film I will be thinking about a lot. It’s depiction and use of violence and revenge are going to stick with me as I think about the cost of fate in stories like this. When does the hero cross the line into the villain? Is it when his fate sets him on the path of destruction and they chose to stay on it rather than chose happiness or love? The film poses some very interesting questions while still being able to be enjoyed by a much larger crowd than Eggers’ previous films. Fate is a fickle thing, I just hope that choice is true and destiny is a myth because fate seems to always have violent ends.
For more information on The Northman, click here.
And for more of Dan’s ramblings on the greatness of Willem Dafoe, check out his reviews for Nightmare Alley and Spider-Man: No Way Home.