Writer-director Robert Eggers became a filmmaking auteur to watch following the one-two punch of terrifying mind-benders The Witch and The Lighthouse in 2016 and 2019, and his latest, The Northman, happens to be his first film outside the artsy confines of A24. Despite not lending itself to multiple interpretations as the previously aforementioned films, The Northman is still a solid horror epic that keeps viewers on edge from start to finish thanks to a hypnotic sound design, creative decisions in its visual style, an intense lead performance from Alexander Skarsgard, and a script that depicts the ideals, beliefs and lifestyles of ancient Norse culture with captivating authenticity.
The Northman begins in the Scandinavian region of Europe circa 895 AD, where young prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) admires his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) to the point of joining him in a spiritual, if chauvinistic, ritual that sees the two unleashing their animalistic instincts; crawling through mud, expelling gas from mouth and rectum, roaring and even eating psychedelic slop from bowls like wolves. Soon after that, Aurvandil’s mage friend Heimur (Willem Dafoe) warns his king of his imminent betrayal and death, prompting Aurvandil to demand his son to avenge his murder, to which Amleth promises accomplishment.
Heimur’s prediction is quick to come true, with Aurvandil’s brother Fjölnur (Claes Bang) murdering Aurvandil, ransacking his kingdom and claiming queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) as his wife, with Amleth just barely managing to escape. Several years later, Amleth (played by Alexander Skarsgard in adulthood) lives in a tribe of vikings who raid their way through every village in their path until a Seeress (Bjork) strays him off his path to tell of Fjolnur’s life in Iceland, further prophesying they will meet in the near future. From there, Amleth stows away on a slave ship headed for Iceland and along with the mysterious Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), is bought into manual labor by Fjolnur, and then allowed to methodically and secretly plot to rescue his mother, achieve his vengeance and fulfill his destiny.
The strongest aspect of The Northman can be found in its screenplay. Eggers and Icelandic writer Sjón’s adaptation of Amleth’s Scandinavian legend is loose to the source material but engrossing all the same in illustrating the ideals, beliefs and ways of Norse life. The no-frills barbarism appears on-screen in brutal, bloody and gory detail, yet is motivated by legacy and nature, such as during the opening custom where Amleth sees his kingdom’s lineage take shape in what Heimur calls The Tree of Kings.
Meanwhile, the pantheon of Norse deities also make a presence through the film’s motifs, such as when Amleth follows a wolf in the wild into a cave, taking it as a sign that Fenrir, the ferocious humanoid wolf monster and the being worshiped by his clan of berserkers, is assisting his pursuit for an object required for his monstrous deed. Eggers also continues to evolve his directorial style in choosing to shoot most scenes in long unbroken takes that ramp up the suspense in violent battle sequences as the camera runs circles around Amleth as he hacks and slashes his way through hordes of enemies while hunting for his prey, and again in intimate conversations he has with Olga and figures from his past that start in wide compositions only to slowly zoom into close two-shots over time.
The Northman also makes clever use of monochrome tints during instances that take place at night which deprive the characters and the environment around them of color until they are saturated with nightmarish candlelight. On the musical side of things, the score from duo Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough unifies single violin notes, deep throat singing and raucous tribal drums to build tension aurally, as Alexander Skarsgard puts in a great lead performance on every step of Amleth’s quest, howling at the moon with an animalistic energy in warning, and reciting his promise to himself in times of solitude with a nuanced and naturalistic, if harrowing, conviction.
There is a lot to like about The Northman, but it doesn’t quite reach the cerebral heights as Eggers’ previous features. There are select parts where two scenarios play out at once that leave moviegoers wondering which one actually happened, such as when Amleth battles a reanimated corpse for a legendary sword, only for the scene to play out again to show him retrieving it from his adversary’s clutches easily, with no supernatural interference.
It’s an intriguing idea that provokes questions about what’s really going on inside the mind of Amleth, but the suspicion doesn’t last long because moments like these come few and far between. It’s also worth noting that the film’s tone hits the ground running with its grand intensity right from the get-go, which makes the world of The Northman difficult to grasp along with the bizarre nature of the custom Amleth partakes in with his father, as well as the Shakespearean-esque vocabulary of the dialogue.
But the narrative does settle into a groove once the setup has been reached, and casual spectators will feel equal parts fascination and terror through the entirety of Amleth’s destructive path of revenge because The Northman is not only Eggers’ most straightforward film, but also a thrilling action epic with compelling elements of horror and fantasy. Those curious will be lulled in by the film’s hypnotic sound design, be beguiled by Skarsgard’s star turn as the Scandinavian icon come to life, want to learn more about Norse culture, and come to understand the tale of Amleth as a dark fable one about a warrior who knows nothing but violence realize his own monstrousness. After the solid entry of You Won’t Be Alone, Focus Features has kept its proverbial hat in the ring among the industry’s other outlets for arthouse horror because for now, The Northman stands above them all as conqueror for the filmmaking genius at its helm.