“The Northman” is a bit of a change of pace for Robert Eggers. His previous two features required a certain repression to not only get things going, but keep them going. And both basically ended in a metaphorical death by orgasm, whether it was spiritually in his feature debut “The Witch,” and more literally so in his later outing “The Lighthouse,” with a barely alive Robert Pattinson left writing in a Promethean state. If only sexual exploration and even full-on activity had been socially allowed, it’s hard to imagine either film coming to such darkly twisted ends.
Vikings can’t exactly be counted to hold things in though. So what’s Eggers’s angle? Decadence isn’t exactly his style, what with his spare, austere settings and visceral sense of nature, which rules out death by sensuality. But if you like that kind of thing, it’s a good setting to go all in on that whole masculinity concept, and Eggers goes full throttle in a way uniquely his own. Because what better place to take it seriously? So seriously, in fact, that even frat boys will recognize all-male rituals that include hallucinogens, farting, and burping, with enough of Eggers’s singular touch to appeal to the indie crowd. It’s not as difficult as you’d think, and certainly no large task for a filmmaker who began his career as a production designer.
Viewing “The Northman,” it’s difficult to recall that Eggers effectively made his breakthrough on a female protagonist and her struggles so well that “The Witch” received an endorsement by the Satanic Temple. But Eggers is a critically and commercially successful filmmaker now, so vulnerability be damned once a young Viking prince witnesses his father murdered and his mother and birthright stolen from him by his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) and vows vengeance.
You can always count on things to get weird with Eggers, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they get interesting. That’s not to say it’s dull, especially since “The Northman” has co-writer Sjón to assist in the cultural side of things fresh off his bizarrely chilling Icelandic horror film “Lamb,” lending some credibility to such a heavily regional fright fest, most of which also takes place in Iceland.
But even with the movie’s respect for the intricately detailed setting and the legends it birthed, everything can’t help being a reflection of Eggers, which only becomes an accusation when a director can’t see outside himself. And when the times not only force you to acknowledge other groups but insist they have a role in the story is when bigotry tends to come to the forefront.
Things get especially repulsive after the kid grows up into Alexander Skarsgård. He’s joined a band of warriors and fits right into the classic Viking mold, assisting his band in sacking, pillaging, and in general causing families to be ripped apart, with children torn from their mother’s arms, innocent people being sold into slavery, and it’s heavily implied but not shown, rape.
Why does this character remain worth investing in? As some unearthly forces inform us, he has a destiny, and it involves avenging his father’s murder and doing his part to ensure a great leader someday comes to rule. And he’s got his mother to rescue, played by Nicole Kidman, who just five years ago was Skarsgård’s wife on the series “Big Little Lies.”
Or does he? When a director is so personally invested in a main character and their views of the world, the opposition tends to be underdeveloped and/or cartoonishly evil. Same with the pretty young thing Skarsgård comes to fancy, Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga, who falls in love with this blonde embodiment of warriorhood, even though he helped destroy her home and directly caused her enslavement. She and his mother may as well be one and the same, sharing a history and far more. Yet it is Kidman who comes to embody the dark heart of the movie’s squeamish obsession with female power, with her actions making about as much sense as Daenerys Targaryen’s in the final season of “Game of Thrones.”
Whether or not you can keep from laughing when Kidman says things like, “Your sword is long,” (I certainly couldn’t) will depend on how much you are invested in Eggers’s mindset and tastes. And he’s brought some familiar faces to make his case, both in front of the camera and behind, including cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and costume designer Linda Muir, who’ve both worked on Eggers’s previous films, and make the movie visually enthralling at least.
If it could’ve been bolstered by any sense of empathy for anyone besides Skarsgård, the raging spectacle surely would’ve been complete, even while clashing bizarrely with its warnings of the devastating price of vengeance. A few women and others deemed worthy may get pedestals, but it’s no substitute for actual development.