In Matt Reeves’ The Batman, Robert Pattinson tries out “I’m vengeance” as The Caped Crusader’s latest cinematic catchphrase. In Robert Eggers’ The Northman, Alexander Skarsgård’s Prince Amleth takes it up a few notches, preparing himself in the style of Kill Bill’s Beatrix Kiddo and Gladiator’s Maximus Decimus Meridius for a roaring rampage of bloody, gladiatorial revenge on his nasty uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang, whose character is soon enough “Fjölnir the Brotherless”). Loosely inspired by the medieval Scandinavian legend that gave birth to William Shakespeare’s famous and tragic Dane (Hamlet), The Northman — despite a whopping budget that started at an estimated 65 million and finished closer to 90 million — is not likely to see the same kind of box office receipts enjoyed by Reeves’ 2022 blockbuster.
Even so, one marvels that in Eggers’ short career he has been able to accomplish that rare feat: the delivery of auteurist visions immediately recognizable for meticulous period details and a commitment to uncompromising storytelling craft. The Northman also retains the filmmaker’s deep respect for the weird and the uncanny. Both The Witch and The Lighthouse (93 and 109 minutes to the 137 of Eggers’ 2022 film) are weirder and more uncanny, however, due in no small part to their closer proximity to the horror genre. The Northman has a few tricks up its sleeve, but Amleth’s mantra — “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir” — is indeed the essence of the plot.
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Eggers — writing this time with Icelandic lyricist, poet, novelist and performer Sjón — plays it straighter and safer than expected. A key twist cracks the door to a stunning possibility that should lead Amleth to ask himself a variant of another Pattinson-affiliated meme staple: “What if I’m the bad guy?” Had Eggers and Sjón focused on the intricacies and complexities of that idea, The Northman’s inevitable climactic duel — a spectacular, one-on-one, Gates of Hel holmgång visually reminiscent of Obi-Wan’s dismantling of Vader alongside the lava flows of Mustafar — might have delivered something unforgettable.
The Northman has much to recommend it. Even though Björk’s part is small and not especially significant, fans can rightfully cheer the big screen return of the Icelandic musician, absent (with the exception of Drawing Restraint 9) since she paid the price to an abusive Lars von Trier in Dancer in the Dark more than two decades ago. Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga of the Birch Forest adds enough promise to make one wish the movie was called “The Northwoman,” while Willem Dafoe’s holy fool Heimir is better than any CG effect. And I just can’t stop thinking about the striking orthodontics or dental adornments worn by the screaming shield maiden.
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Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor’s Arden Shakespeare edition of Hamlet claims the story is second only to “Cinderella” as the world’s most-filmed, although the flood of Dracula variants, Sherlock Holmes iterations and versions of A Christmas Carol are in the conversation. Eggers has joked that his long-gestating remake of Nosferatu could be cursed by the ghost of F. W. Murnau, but I hope he gets to it in the near future. The Northman’s carefully choreographed, single-shot takes and startlingly lit close-ups — designed in collaboration with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke — blow the spatially disorienting and over-edited style of so many contemporary action films completely out of the fjord.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is a professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.