Bloody, brooding, beautiful, and likely not for everyone, The Northman has more testosterone pumped through it than Mel Gibson’s face paint. Robert Eggers’ keen instinct for period pieces once more raises its cinematic, dreamlike accuracy to dramatic feats. If you seek subtlety, then you will not find it here. Besides, there should be no reason for seeking peace in a film regarding Vikings.
To call Vikings barbaric would be an understatement. Robert Eggers does not attempt to shy away from the Viking’s savage behavior. The film’s protagonist Amleth’s (Alexander Skarsgård) upbringing is defined by a ritual transitioning him into manhood. In this procedure, the father, the spiritual advisor (played as brilliantly as you’d imagine by Willem Dafoe), and the young one strip down to their tighty whities. Then, they get on all fours, acting like rapid angry wolves. The entire ordeal is laughable, but perhaps intentionally.
Eggers is presenting how dumb men appear when trying to assert themselves. The old stereotype of women being emotional is proven to be the exact opposite in the world of those who embrace brute force over empathy. The Vikings, along with other primitive civilizations, have been toppled because of their pride. The lineage “pride comes before the fall exists“ for a reason.
Although men run the bingo in the world, it’s the woman who can manipulate the weak-minded. Throughout the film, the men become rageful due to their ego being harmed. It’s the woman who must tame their unstable men. Anya Taylor Joy’s Olga says it best to Amleth “Your strength breaks men’s bones. I have the cunning to break their minds.” Although helpless in a world dominated by physical intimidation, some of The Northman’s women are anything but weak in the film.
Amleth’s tale is one familiar with any gritty revenge drama set in the past. The day after being claimed a man by his tribe, Amleth’s father, and the king of the North Atlantic, King Aurvandil (Ethen Hawke), is slain by his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Able to flee from his beheading, Amleth lives in the shadows, vowing to avenge his father and free his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nichole Kidman) Hard cutting to Amleth as an adult, he returns to the land his uncle has stolen from his headless father. Upon his return, Amleth deliberately lives the life of an enslaved person so he can murder Fjölnir, free his mother, and reclaim his land. Unfortunately, things don’t go the way Amleth imagines. In short, it’s Viking Hamlet.
The return of Amleth is thematically similar to Maximus’ entrance to the Roman Colosseum. Although two completely different men, Amleth, like Maximus, is driven by vengeance and respected by those around him. Unlike Maximus or any similar characters seeking retribution, Amleth isn’t a good person. When we first see an adult Amleth, he performs the very actions his uncle enabled, if not even more villainous. The lives of innocents don’t matter as long as Amleth earns what he seeks. Simply gaining revenge would make for a serviceable Revenant copycat. But there’s so much more to this tale than movies like The Revenant have to say.
The adage “anger begets anger” is bludgeoned over the audience’s head like Hans Zimmer snorting a line of blow, then going to town on the drums. The world of the Vikings is a merciless environment where compassion is viewed as weakness. Pre-dating modern sports, the Vikings’ embrace of bloodshed is like a sport. For instance, there’s a game in the film like croquet.
The game’s object is to beat your opponent into submission and score the goal. The last man left standing wins. Is it worth death or traumatic head injuries to be the winning player? Ask your everyday NFL player. Men view violence as a sport, much like how we view war. Who has the most winning record is the best of the best. That’s the M.O. for our military, is it not? Whoever is the toughest is who we levitate toward.
Although more mature now, mankind still can’t get over its machoism. Whether the former President is comparing nuke sizes with North Korean dictators or Russia intimidating everyone with his doomsday machine, man’s solution to most problems is murder. And why? Is it to prove a point? At what end does the killing stop, and we move on to live peaceful lives? Against Amleth’s well-being, the answer is never. If a point of contention is made, it’s with Olga’s inactivity.
Although she wants to rebel against those who enslaved her, Olga never takes any real action in the film other than showing disgust toward her victimizer in one scene. The only instant Olga makes a firm decision in the film is undercut by Amleth. Of course, her man is going to save her.
Olga’s arc isn’t much of a complaint since Robert Eggers is making a film that examines a culture honestly. It’s not hard to guess that Vikings didn’t respect women much. Robin Carolan and Sebastion Gainsborough’s score is obnoxiously loud since that’s what appeals to the beast in us. Hans Zimmer’s head slamming scores work because there’s something animalistic in our appeal to the drums. As gentile as we may be, from chandeliers to bug zappers, we’ve learned how to restrain ourselves to a small extent. But we still cheer for our team to the death because empathy requires patience, which we don’t have as a mass civilization. I included.
Revenge works on screen because we’re animals to our very core. Male or female, humanity craves power. Eggers’ cynical outlook on our species is magnified by Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography, capturing a world of reality and fantasy. What makes The Witch and The Lighthouse work is their mixture of historical accuracy and dreamy experimentation. The massacres are underlit, ugly, and sloppy during moments of blunt reality. There’s no grace in anyone’s combat. The fights mostly look like a bunch of guys clumsily stabbing each other. They begin with choreography, but everything descends into whaling madness when the blades collide.
The Northman is emotionally exhaustive. If Mr. Eggers knows how to capture one thing perfectly, it’s how awful life was far before this century. The production of The Northman must have been difficult. The fatigue on his actor’s faces is prevalent in his films. I feel the cold in his movies. Whether it be the wind from the lake in The Lighthouse or the blistering breeze from the Icelandic mountains, his on-location filming pays off. Hopefully, it’s not to the extent of his cast and crew, where nothing is worth enduring people to such measures. Depending on who you ask, The Northman may be Egger’s most visceral film. Just make sure to see it on an empty stomach.