Sex, blood and strangeness reign in The Northman

Robert Eggers continues to explore his fascination with the intersection of the folkloric and the grotesque in his Viking revenge film.

In The Northman, a child born to be king grows up to be a wild man rippling with muscle and consumed by revenge. In a loose reworking of Hamlet, set in the heyday of Vikings and old religion, a man will do anything to avenge his family. He will pillage and plunge, and will voluntarily subject himself to slavery, all in pursuit of his goal. His single-mindedness reduces him to a shell of a person, an almost mythical beast driven by a single, all-consuming purpose.

Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) continues to explore his fascination with the intersection of the folkloric and the grotesque in The Northman. Following very much in the footsteps of his previous films, he manages to zero in on the “strangeness” of the world to retell an otherwise familiar story. The film is at its best when he leans into that aspect of the world, exploring the rituals and practices of the old religion, particularly how those beliefs break down the line between man and animal. 

Eggers understands that folklore is a set of stories told by a community in order to make sense of themselves and the world around them. In the savage world of The Northman, the gods need to be ruthless and earthy to align with how the Vikings see themselves and their lives. Hedonism and brutality play equal roles in this system, which sees blood as a symbol of power. Blood lineages may birth future kings but blood spilled can make anyone a royal. The religion paradoxically inscribes power in both conformity and rebellion all at once. As a viewer, we sense the liberating power of this system of belief, particularly as rituals allow people to explore hidden parts of themselves. In a dark wood, as a fire crackles, everyone — regardless of social status — wanders through the trees searching for a mate. For one night, slave and owner become equals, able to live free and carnally, at least until the sun rises. 

The Northman new movies April
Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Northman

The earthiness of these pleasures, though, is the same earthiness of the carnal violence inscribed in religion. In images evoking The Wicker Man and the opening sequence of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, a monstrous “God” rips people apart only to arrange them back together again into an unholy horse sculpture as a warning of impending divine vengeance. As shocking as this may be to the people of the small Icelandic farm where much of the film takes place, they also readily accept it as part of a world forged through blood and violence.

The folkloric aspects elevate The Northman into something a bit more interesting than just a Skyrim-inspired Viking revenge story, but it can only do so much in elevating a rather thin and poorly constructed story. For all the ecstatic folkloric work at play, Eggers has a dull tendency of laying too many of his cards down on the table at once. Almost immediately, we understand that the character relations are not as rosy as seen from a child’s POV and that we are missing core pieces of the puzzle. This may be more true to life, in the sense that old gods don’t exist and most royal men suck, but it deflates almost all the narrative tension before the movie even gets started. Everything feels carefully set up for a late-movie revelation that anyone with a modicum of social awareness could have spotted a mile away.

These decisions also impact the writing and performance of the main character. While there are many great films about men run ragged by revenge, this one simply does not work. From the get-go, the revenge plot feels misguided, a childish fantasy, therefore we never have time to grow with the character. The normally charismatic Alexander Skarsgård is demure and flattened here, coming across as a wounded slow-witted animal. It’s hard to fault him though, as the script does him very few favours.

Nicole Kidman in The Northman

Ironically, his parents, played by Nicole Kidman and Ethan Hawke, are too much, taking their performances in a completely different direction. They embrace the most indecent and high-strung aspects of their characterizations and also adopt weirdly SNL-like Scottish accents. Kidman, in particular, creates a character who feels like a cross between Lady Macbeth and the Wicked Witch of the West. She’s maniacal and duplicitous, delivering a performance at a high register of over the topness. It’s genuinely entertaining though, much in the same way Ben Affleck’s spoiled bottle blonde was in The Last Duel

If anyone comes out looking good, it’s Anya Taylor-Joy, whose otherworldly intensity shifts the tone of the entire film.  She has a nymph-like quality that draws from the barren landscape’s most ethereal and fantastic elements. Her performance, shrewd and open-hearted, offers a clever mirror image to Kidman’s more craven mother figure. Both women have contrasting relationships with dignity and power. While they rarely share any screen time, the way their fates intertwine is compelling and rich in its ideas and execution. 

Depending on your feelings about Eggers’ other films, The Northman may or may not be for you. Personally, I’ve yet to really connect with any of his movies, though I’m happy he’s able to draw in audiences hungry for dirty, subversive and smart genre cinema. The Northman is certainly flawed, perhaps more so than his previous films, but it more than makes up for it with its strangeness and spectacle. ■

The Northman, directed by Robert Eggers

The Northman opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, April 22.

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