'The Northman': A Brutal, Yet Highly Impressive Viking Epic
Updated: Apr 23, 2022
I always appreciate when directors have a rather distinct style, yet you never quite know what kind of film they will make next. Robert Eggers is an excellent example of this, as his penchant for authentic period pieces has become one of his biggest identifiers, yet each of his films feel somewhat different from each other. His debut, The Witch, is a slow-burning folk horror, while his second film, The Lighthouse is more of a dizzying psychological thriller. And now, with his third film, The Northman, Eggers gives us a revenge tale set in the age of vikings. While there are some similarities between this and Eggers's other films in terms of his attention to period-specific details, the film's themes, and certain visual elements, this film is so much grander by comparison, and shows us what Eggers can do with a larger budget. It is a true epic in every sense of the word, and the type of film that demands to be seen on the big screen.
When it comes to Eggers's filmography, I am consistently impressed with how authentic the world of each of his films feel. He continues this with The Northman, as the film captures the barbarism of the times, and doesn't shy away from this in the slightest. It legitimately feels like we are in Iceland circa 895 AD, and has such specificity in the look and feel of the film. This also carries over to how the characters speak, which is another trademark of Eggers's work. While people likely did not speak English in the areas where the film takes place, it still feels like what the characters would say when translating their words into English. The dialogue in general is not quite as esoteric as I was expecting it to be, yet it still uses specific words and sentence structures that feel more in line with the times. It allows the film to feel honest, while also being fairly easy to follow and understand.
The film is rooted in Norse mythology, and you would be forgiven if you would think that it would lean fully into this. There are quite a few moments where it leans into more of the fantastical elements of the story, yet it is more concerned with the humanity of the characters and the central plot overall. The film is largely a revenge narrative, but there are also elements of familial relationships, fate, and cyclical violence at play as well. We do have moments where the film evokes certain mythological figures and concepts, such as valkyries, Valhalla, and the god Odin, to name a few. The film has this streak of mythos that seems to marry Norse mythology with Shakespearean conventions while also taking time to focus on the reality of what is happening in the film. It strikes such a specific balance that allows Eggers to once again paint a specific picture of a certain time and place, while also appealing to the emotions of the audience.
With his previous films, Eggers has been able to do quite a lot with some modest budgets. With The Northman, we see what he is able to do with a considerably larger amount of money. This film was made on a $90 million budget, and it shows. This is an absolute epic, and so much work was put into the creation of the world of the film. The production design is stellar, with the villages we encounter feeling a bit reminiscent of those we see in The Witch, yet also feeling appropriate to the time period the film is set. On top of that, the film's cinematography is breathtaking. Frequent Eggers collaborator Jarin Blaschke returns to be the DP on this film and it just might be his best work yet. I was certain that nothing would top the claustrophobic, black-and-white photography that he pulled off with The Lighthouse, but this is him working on a whole other level. The framing of many shots is just brilliant, and the way he shoots the more brutal battle sequences is highly effective. He will also linger on certain moments for a while, which contrasts nicely to the quicker pace of the editing in the film. It's not that the film uses snappy editing or anything, but it does keep the momentum of the film moving at a decent clip. The film does have the same slow-burning quality of Eggers's previous films, yet this definitely moves along a bit quicker, featuring some moments of slowness that build up to moments of action and intrigue. As a result, this may be his most accessible film to date, yet it does so without fully sacrificing any of what makes Eggers's work so fascinating.
The film also features an incredible cast, most of whom are giving some of the best performances I've seen from them. Alexander Skarsgård is a rather compelling lead, and captures the desires of the character incredibly. He brings such determination to the role, and truly makes you believe that he is one of the toughest men to ever live. It's such a powerful performance, and one that is much more understated than I was expecting, while also allowing him to feel like a mythological hero. Nicole Kidman gives perhaps my favorite performance of the film, as it is without a doubt the most fascinating character she has played in a long time. Kidman has turned in some decent performances over the past few years, but none of them are on the level of what she does here. There is a scene she has where she is essentially giving an extended monologue that stands among one of the best things she has ever done. It is a major turning point in the film, and she plays it to perfection. I can't say that I have ever been a massive fan of Anya Taylor-Joy, despite generally liking her in the films I've seen her in, but she gives a fascinating performance here. I wasn't sure how she would fit into the film going into it, but her overall arc is quite intriguing. Her introduction scene is one of my favorites in the film, and her scenes with Skarsgard are quite great as well. This may be my favorite role she has played to date, and I hope that she continues to get the chance to play more interesting characters like this one. I also really enjoyed Ethan Hawke's part in the film, even if he isn't in it all that much. He makes every minute count, and nails the gregarious nature of the character. I also liked Claes Bang as the villainous Fjölnir. He delivers some of the best lines of the film, and manages to give an antagonistic performance without feeling cartoonish or clichéd.
The Northman is Robert Eggers's most straightforward film to date, but it doesn't mean that this is a generic blockbuster. It very much feels in line with his previous two films, even though it is more epic in scale and makes some minor concessions to better reach general audiences. It is the type of brutal, massive, and intense film that I was hoping it would be, and it is easily one of the best theatrical experiences I have had so far this year. Eggers is one of those filmmakers who you tend to have an idea of what to expect from him, yet he always manages to surprise you. This is definitely the case here, as the trailers do make the film look more like a standard revenge flick, but it has such specificity for the time and culture it is featuring, and weaves in some more human themes as well. It is an excellent achievement for all involved, and another great addition to Eggers's great filmography.