Robert Eggers shot his shot. He and Alexander Skarsgård had an idea for a Viking revenge epic; they got the budget. And damn did they use it. Movies simply do not look like this very often: titanic, bone-rattling, horny, apocalyptic, visceral, fiery, intestine-spilling, sprawling. Nearly every shot is beautiful and epic and violent, every penny of $90 million visible. It’s the blunt trauma to the senses (in a good way).
It’s hard to find enough good things to say about every facet of the visual and audio construction of this film. If it lacks the bravura stylization of the grainy black and white of The Lighthouse, it makes up for it with some of the most bracing adventure filmmaking in recent memory. The story is saturated in elements: watery expeditions and burning buildings and seeping lava. The effects are, I suspect, majority practical — or such well-designed CGI that it blends naturally with the environments in a way it rarely does for high-budget films. It’s a primordial basis for the film.
More important than the look is their psychological effect and how that relates to the worldbuilding. This movie feels like Norse mythology come to life, with all its life-or-death stakes and steadfast belief in capital-F Fate. There’s an ever-looming sense of gods crashing through to the human plane as weather phenomena or prophecy or visions. It is not important whether we as viewers believe those things (well, actually, it kind of is — more on that in a sec) but it is central that this be true for the characters of the film. This was very true of The Witch as well.
Thankfully, the acting in The Northman is really outstanding — a consistency across Eggers’ three pictures. Although this film has no performances as memorable as either in The Lighthouse, it has a massive ensemble pretty uniformly doing excellent work, often in different ways. Skarsgård is the cornerstone of the film as Amleth, the banished prince, anchoring the movie with physicality and sheer charisma. Björk and Willem Dafoe are amazing in short-lived blasts of alien cosmic energy. I really liked Nicole Kidman, too, in a limited role, playing up her threatening energy. The list goes on. It’s a damn loaded cast. Ethan Hawke, Claes Bang, Kate Dickie, Ralph Ineson, and more. The only notable cast member who felt closer to “solid” than “excellent” for me is Anya Taylor-Joy, burdened with a Slav accent. She smolders with the best of them, though.
So what’s holding me back? Well, as developed as this world and scenario are, it’s still… archaic. Lots of hyper-masculine bullshit wrapped around a generic revenge story. That’s part of the point, but also keeps me at a big distance for much of the film. The characters are all bravado and mythic sweep, no interiority. It’s tiring. Eggers pours on the dour violence a bit too hard overall for my taste. A particular early Viking raid is borderline exploitative in its bloodshed and cruelty — while still being a marvel of set piece design, I’ll add.
So what I’m left with is prodigious admiration and uneven appreciation for a movie that feels too often like corny macho bullshit. Beautiful, sweeping corny bullshit that will make you believe you are seeing the essence of Odin come to life in all his power and fury, to be sure, but the kernels and stench are there.
- Review Project: 2022: Year in Film