Robert Eggers returns to the big screen for The Northman, an epic historical action drama that serves as his most ambitious, high-budget project yet. A career that began with low-budget horror films The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers has arrived in theaters with a good, old-fashioned revenge thriller. The emphasis here is on old-fashioned, as he masterfully transports us back to A.D. 895 for a movie about Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a Viking on a mission to kill his uncle, who killed Amleth’s father and kidnapped his mother two decades prior.
This is a triumphant effort from Eggers to tell a more mainstream narrative while keeping in tune with his distinct stylings. Those who have seen Eggers’s previous work know that he is partial to graphic, surreal imagery carefully constructed to be as evocative as possible. Eggers brings some of that to The Northman, giving his characters striking visions that lead to a beautifully unique cinematic experience. At the same time, he crafts a story of vengeance that serves the characters very well. Amleth’s words, “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir,” echo through the screen.
At its core, the story is conventional. Amleth’s journey is what originally inspired The Tragedy of Hamlet, with the protagonists’ names serving as anagrams. Eggers tells a very Shakespearean tale, opening with a gripping prologue that introduces the audience to Amleth as a child. Oscar Novak does an incredible job in his scenes as young Amleth, and he shares the screen well with Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe, who provide excellent work with their brief screen time. As they perform a spiritual ceremony on all fours, their dedication to the craft is admirable. They behave like animals and sell a scene that could have been lost without the right performers and direction.
What Eggers has mastered as a filmmaker is transporting his audience into a time entirely different from our own. Once his films begin, total immersion starts as you enter an experience unlike any other. The craftsmanship and attention to detail in every bit of The Northman are stunning, with believable, immaculate production design. While some films set in the past make the mistake of having everything feel polished and artificial, this movie is gritty, with dirty costumes in settings that complement the film’s dark tone.
This is also Eggers’s first venture into large-scale action sequences. While the film’s focus isn’t the action, the movie features some of the most gripping battle sequences of the year. There are long takes with copious amounts of bloody, brutal violence that can be shocking. The barbarity of every insane fight scene matches the fierce nature of the Vikings and demonstrates the strength of Amleth as he embarks on his plan of vengeance. Skarsgård, who has shown his physical prowess in The Legend of Tarzan, outshines himself with his masterful stuntwork in this film.
As far as the film’s story goes, the easiest complaint is that it uses familiar ingredients. Amleth’s goal of revenge is conventional, but it is perhaps the only accessible aspect of a movie that is uninterested in making things relatable for a 21st-century audience. The film is based on a classic legend, and Eggers does an excellent job of putting his artistic voice onto it. The second act can slow down at times, but the sublime cinematography and the performances are very engaging. Anya Taylor-Joy continues to outdo herself as an actress, and Nicole Kidman is phenomenal, as is Claes Bang as the film’s antagonist.
Eggers also knew the right moments to bring his characters into dramatic directions, with a shocking revelation that pushes the protagonist into dark places. The Northman is an exceptionally crafted film with unconventional visuals and a filmmaking voice behind it that is powerfully unique. There is graphic violence and dark moments all over this film, and it is a story brought to life wonderfully by a cinematic auteur.
As ComingSoon’s review policy explains, a score of 7 equates to “Good.” A successful piece of entertainment that is worth checking out, but it may not appeal to everyone.