The Northman stars Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth, a Viking who hopes to avenge the murder of his father, the King (Ethan Hawke). He also plans to save his mother (Nicole Kidman), who has been forced to marry the murderer, also the King’s brother. Along the way Amleth meets a beautiful witch (Anya Taylor-Joy), who offers him a brighter and less-deadly path in life. It’s the same Scandinavian legend that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and it could’ve seemd too familiar in another director’s hands. Fortunately, Robert Eggers is steering this ship so The Northman is consistently fresh, even during its grimiest, blood-bath battles (of which there are many).
Eggers’ tendency to lean into horror themes has played against him in the past. Audiences left The Witch and The Lighthouse frustrated because those films weren’t the traditional “scary movies” the trailers promised. The Northman doesn’t fall into that trap though, veering more into a Game of Thrones/Braveheart lane. It isn’t advertised as a horror film, so the horror elements it does offer simply add depth and an extra chill.
Eggers’ cold, grey vision is bolstered by enigmatic performances, especially on behalf of Skarsgård and Kidman. There’s a palpable chemistry between the two (they played believable husband and wife in Big Little Lies) which gives an extra layer of icky to their mother-son relationship. We are introduced to ancient Viking legends, like white witches, the Valkyrie and demon hounds, that all feel more flesh-and-bone than earlier film incarnations. The battle scenes here are also slower and heavier than the Marvel/John Wick fare we’re accustomed to. They plod and thud in a visceral way, feeling more realistic and at times, iconic.
The Northman is another long film, clocking in at 2 hours and 16 minutes. Almost every second is used to the fullest though and there are refreshingly, no surprise twists towards the end to add another 20 minutes. It’s bloody and harrowing, but The Northman surprises with some laugh-out-loud moments, as well. I was breathless and locked on the screen throughout, but I really wanted a shower and a warm blanket when The Northman was done. (A)
(The Northman is rated R and opens 4/15.)