In a profile of Robert Eggers published in The New Yorker a couple of weeks before the release of The Northman, Sam Knight called the director’s latest “the most accurate Viking movie ever made.” The 38-year-old’s reputation as meticulous researcher long predates his Scandinavian saga, but the film’s estimated $90 million budget—a huge leap from the director’s first two features, The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019)—means that fastidiousness and attention to detail can now play out on a much larger and more ambitious scale. Co-written by Eggers with the Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón, The Northman borrows from the same Nordic legend Shakespeare drew from for his Hamlet. In Eggers’ retelling, Alexander Skarsgård plays Amleth, a prince on a revenge mission. As a ten-year-old (played by Oscar Novak), Amleth saw his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), murdered by his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who then seized the kingdom and carried Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) off like a prize. Years later, the boy has turned into a hulking He-Man-like berserker planning to avenge what he lost while pillaging villages with fellow warriors.
“Eggers’s accomplishment,” A.O. Scott writes at The New York Times, “lies in his fastidious, fanatical rendering of that world, down to its bed linens and cooking utensils.” But that fastidiousness—the way it manifests itself, and the role it plays in the film—deserves careful spelling. “For all of the talk about Eggers’ obsessive attention to historical detail,” David Ehrlich helpfully notes at IndieWire, “the right chain mail or piece of embroidery is ultimately in service to the form and perspective of a film that puts you in the mindset of someone who lived by some very different principles.” In that, The Northman feels like “the peak of Eggers’ continuing effort to return some integrity to the past; to level the playing field between now and then by shooting period folklore with such historic fidelity that we experience it in the present tense.”
Just as “The Witch” is so unsettling because it renders sin with a Puritan sense of mortal danger, and “The Lighthouse” so febrile because it embodies the isolation of 19th century life on the fringes of sanity, “The Northman” is so grab-you-by-the-throat intense because it renders a Viking prince’s quest for vengeance as though fate were a force as real as the weather.
As Justin Chang contends at the L.A. Times, the director “draws no distinction between fantasy and reality, though as a storyteller, he is naturally inclined toward an ardent defense of paganism in all its forms.” And The Northman, “with its ominous ravens, bearded he-witches and helmeted Valkyries, treats Viking mythology as its own living, breathing, dazzling reality.”
But for all its meticulous research and arresting production design, The Northman doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with its stunning images, much less how to make them come to life. Over at The New Yorker, Richard Brody argues that, “with its prettification of the bodily world,” the film “offers no synesthesia, no evocation of any sense beside vision.”
One of the disheartening peculiarities of the movie is that it doesn’t convey any of the sensory aspects of the world it depicts. For all the care the production lavishes on making costumes and weapons, on building huts and caves and rendering fire-lit interiors and their furnishings, the camera doesn’t linger on the objects, doesn’t give them texture or weight or temperature. Eggers’s direction is incurious, as if he satisfied and exhausted his enthusiasm in the research. The images are illustrations of the story, decorations of it.
Brody’s criticism seems to speak to a larger concern—the suspicion that, gory and startling as the film may often look, Eggers is effectively “holding back”. On the one hand, as Adam Nayman astutely suggests at The Ringer, Amleth isn’t the morally ambivalent character the director wants us to regard him as. The hero’s reticence to use violence against women and children, for one thing, “juxtaposed against all kinds of vile stuff going on in the background of any given scene, surely has more to do with the filmmaker’s moral compass—and his careful consideration of mainstream audiences—than plausible psychology.”
A version of The Northman featuring a genuinely ethically ambivalent protagonist would be startling and daring. Instead, we keep getting reminded of Amleth’s essential decency; Skarsgard keeps sublimating his own feral intensity until it’s mostly gone. It’s a thin line between ancient, universal archetype and easy, crowd-pleasing convention, and the sense that The Northman is using one to justify the other chips away significantly at its wild, violent ambition. For all the smashed-in faces and spilled intestines on display, there’s also a feeling that Eggers is playing things safe.
On the other hand, and more broadly still, The Northman doesn’t seem to kick over into the shockingly beautiful and deranged phantasmagorias of its predecessors, or the influences Eggers drew from. Writing for Slant, Mark Hanson warns that, “while [the] film’s canvas is considerably broader” than it was in The Witch and The Lighthouse, “it feels as if its psychological chaos hasn’t expanded accordingly.”
The Northman clearly aims to keep one foot in the realm of the enigmatic—and to maybe say something grand about life, death, and fate along the away. But unlike Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, a Viking-age head trip that’s steadfastly committed to its vibe of abstract expressionism, Eggers’s film is sometimes frustratingly shackled to the obligations of plot. It doesn’t lack for blood and guts, but it doesn’t play enough in the well of the weird, and missing here is that haunting sense of the elemental and oneness between people and place that animates The Witch and The Lighthouse.
I’m sympathetic toward Nayman’s objections, but I’m not entirely sure Eggers is guilty of the sort of crowd-pleasing he’s describing. There is something refreshing about The Northman’s “ruthless unrelatability,” as Alison Willmore calls it at Vulture. Indeed, the film’s “most notable quality is the way it refuses to bend its characters to the present, preferring instead to make them as alien in their perspective as possible.”
When so much recent media has bent history to accommodate more modern points of view, there’s something spectacular about Eggers’s refusal to soften his protagonist in any way or to have him learn the sort of lessons a 2022 story demands. You don’t need to understand Amleth’s values to invest in his brutal journey, which is filled with heart-pounding set pieces and unabashed badassery […] The Northman benefits from surrendering to that sense of remove, to its hero’s unforgiving understanding of the universe having been created to reward violence.
And while Amleth may draw a line at women and children, The Northman doesn’t soften the way the former were treated. This too, I suspect, can be read as evidence of the film’s fastidiousness. Eggers, Clarisse Loughrey observes at The Independent, “maintains a commitment to authenticity over populist perception,” never shrugging off “the vicious misogyny of the period,” while also “carving out a special place for the women of his film and the deep, feminine nature of Viking sorcery.”
As for the film’s lack of madness—its fitful, all-too-ethereal weird—there’s no denying The Northman’s lean, programmatic plot. “What’s here is certainly a blast,” Matt Lynch reminds us over at In Review Online, “but it’s perhaps not productively about anything; we’re in simple revenge-movie mode, despite the lush milieu.” Yet the film doesn’t all too simply rest on that formulaic scaffolding—it tries to subvert it, too. As Nicholas Russell notes at Film Comment,
Some might find the simplicity of this kind of “Point A to Point B” plot frustrating; however, done well, the joy of a movie like The Northman lies in how it anticipates our familiarity with its narrative arc while subverting our moral expectations. While The Witch and The Lighthouse (2019) traffic in the experiential, The Northman focuses on the inevitable, which makes it Eggers’s most linear and therefore most accessible film. In his version of the classic revenge tale, magic only goes so far: to reach the sublime (in the film’s case, Valhalla), you have to pass through the meat grinder of earthly existence.
Which brings us back to the film’s authenticity. For all its spasmodic attention to period-faithful details, K. Austin Collins contends at Rolling Stone, The Northman “is equally grounded in the inconceivable and the plausible.” Eggers, in other words, pulls off “something more interesting than accuracy, in part by abandoning what could ever possibly be known.” And that’s where The Northman draws much of its power—not from lived reality, but from its straddling of facts and myths, from the unsettling tug of fantasy and other unnameable forces. More than anything then, Austin Collins goes on to argue, The Northman leaves one wondering “what Eggers would do with a historically blank canvas, an act of storytelling divorced from old modes like the revenge plot or witchy self-discovery.”
This isn’t something that every obsessively detailed director makes us feel. It is, specifically, something that Eggers’ movies make me crave. More than his previous works, […] Northman makes a case for what Eggers might pull off were he encouraged to drift even more completely into the realm of imagination. It’s the fantasies and visions that stand out. Less so the “story.” The Northman is as off-the-rails, internal, and speculative as Eggers has ever been. The craft speaks for itself. The next step for Eggers is to really let it fly.
The Current Debate is a biweekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation.