Director Robert Eggers has quickly made a name for himself in Hollywood thanks to his first two features, the somber yet entrancing horror films The Witch and The Lighthouse. But with his third feature, The Northman, Eggers has definitively proved that he’s a cinematic force to be reckoned with.
The Northman is a revenge tale based loosely on a Viking legend, and it allows Eggers to lay bare his ambitious, sweeping vision with emphatic determination and well-earned confidence. The story itself is as predictable as most movies about retribution, but the fact that this movie is nonetheless bewitching despite its predictability is the most telling testament to Eggers’ unique and effective style of storytelling.
Set mostly in a small kingdom off the coast of Ireland sometime in the 9th Century, The Northman opens as King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) returns to his wife, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), and their young son, Prince Amleth, who encounters bizarre beings such as a he-witch played by Willem Dafoe, and a Seeress (who may not even have eyes) played by Icelandic singer Björk. The King is soon struck down in his prime before his son’s very eyes, and though the boy runs away to spare himself the same fate, he eventually grows up to be a man hellbent on avenging his father’s murder. Played as an adult by Alexander Skarsgard in a career-best role, Amleth sets out to find the target of his vengeance — his own murderous uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang).
Given the rather simple setup, it doesn’t take a Seeress to know what you can reasonably expect to occur over the next two hours. Amleth knows he is fated to die at the Gates of Hell, but not before he rescues his mother and kills his uncle. Anna Taylor Joy also shows up to lend the proceedings some additional intrigue as a mysterious sorceress peasant, but the role proves ultimately pointless, and The Northman proceeds almost exactly as you expect it to from start to finish.
That said, Eggers and his co-writer, Icelandic poet Sjón, earn the film’s leisurely running time, as they make this familiar story utterly captivating. The point, clearly, is the journey, and not Amleth’s fateful destination. That trek is created by Eggers’ confident camera and Jarin Blaschke’s vigorous cinematography as well as Louise Ford’s seamless editing, and Sebastian Gainsborough’s heart-pounding score. Other talented veterans from Eggers’ first two films include Costume Designer Linda Muir and Production Designer Craig Lathrop.
This gifted below-the-line group works in harmony together and the gorgeous final product reflects both their devotion to the project and their dedication to each other. Muir designs the Viking-style costumes you might expect, but she accentuates her characters with various flourishes such as headpieces and other bits of armor that denote a heightened sense of importance. Lathrop gives you fireplaces, sheds where a lot of scary and important things happen, a witch’s cavern, and a mighty volcano appropriately called Hel, while Ford takes you from fast-paced action to panoramic still shots of the incredible vistas that Blaschke captures. In the background, Gainsborough’s soundtrack insists that this story is epic and that more is at stake than simply “fate” or “honor.” After all, Prince Amleth is widely understood to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so much is riding on his swole shoulders.
Of course, this story would not be nearly as interesting were it not for the equally capable actors who help Eggers tell it. Skarsgard and Bang are two of Scandinavia’s best working thespians today, and what can one say of tireless Aussie Nicole Kidman? Though the amalgam of accents that these actors of different nationalities employ at times teeters dangerously close to House of Gucci territory, most of the action in Eggers’ screenplay is thankfully on the battlefield or in the shadows, and there is insufficient dialogue to grate the senses with a spoken mélange of tones. At the end of the day, these three actors, as well as Dafoe and Taylor-Joy, triumph with their expressions and visceral movements, and The Northman conveys the same grandiose consequentiality that any of Shakespeare’s royal tragedies do.
Few will walk out of The Northman without taking something memorable with them. Though the inherent predictability of revenge movies, with their familiar themes of fate and destiny and excessive use of animal symbolism (in this case ravens and goats), can often result in a heavy-handed movie, that is fortunately not the case with Eggers’ third film. Thanks to Eggers’ confident manner of storytelling, one that permits his brilliant cast to meld seamlessly with the monumental efforts of numerous craftspeople, The Northman is one of the most impressive if not downright haunting movies to hit theaters in quite a while.
Focus Features will release The Northman in U.S. theaters on Friday, April 22, with previews starting Thursday night.