The Northman is a jaw-dropping work of madness | Screen | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Northman is a jaw-dropping work of madness

click to enlarge The Northman - PHOTO: COURTESY OF FOCUS FEATURES
Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features
The Northman
When describing the process of filming Robert Eggers’ The Northman, Ethan Hawke told The New Yorker, “I’ve spent my life wondering, 'Will I ever get to be on a set that feels like Apocalypse Now? You know, like, somebody’s trying. They have the balls, and the hubris and the arrogance to say, ‘I want to make a masterpiece.'”

When your stated goal is to replicate one of the most chaotic film sets of all time, you know The Northman isn’t going to be run of the mill. And to everyone’s benefit — except possibly Focus Features, who supposedly has tried drastically changing the film — Eggers’ latest piles on the madness, producing one of the most breathtakingly nuts movies in recent years, a died-in-the-wool Viking revenge epic that feels every bit like a visionary has been given money to burn for the first time in his life, and is going to take full advantage of it.

Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) is a scrawny yet determined son of King Aurvandil War-Raven (Hawke) in Iceland who is convinced he has everything it takes to be next in line. However, after Aurvandil is brutally murdered by his brother (played by Claes Bang), Amleth is forced to flee, vowing revenge.


Two decades later, Amleth is fully grown, and fully savage, played now by Alexander Skarsgård. He has forgotten his desire for revenge, channeling his rage instead towards townspeople, raiding villages with the brutality of an animal. However, an encounter with a strange witch (music artist Björk in a phenomenal but far too short role), and a beautiful mystic (Anya Taylor-Joy), reignites his fury and sets his plot into motion.

If it wasn’t obvious by some of the other adjectives so far, The Northman is an absolutely ruthless film. Eggers’ previous two works, The VVitch and The Lighthouse, reveled in shocking moments at times, but this film feels like a full-on assault on decency, in the most authentic of ways. You quickly learn that, in this startlingly visceral depiction of Viking times, everyone is dirty and anything (and I mean anything) can be devoured if you’re motivated enough.
click to enlarge The Northman - PHOTO: COURTESY OF FOCUS FEATURES
Photo: Courtesy of Focus Features
The Northman
All that being said, it’s balanced out by the astonishing beauty that fills each frame. Eggers has found a natural subject here, a culture that’s heavily reliant on striking imagery, rhythmic chanting, and obscure symbolism, all of which play right into the hand of his interests. It creates a truly hallucinatory vision of the past, one in which everyone accepts the way of the gods. Spirits, unicorns, and mystics fit right into a world where everyone is expecting an arrow to hit them in the chest at any moment. The Northman’s budget ended up around $90 million, and not a dollar was spared to make the film one of the most unique visions in recent memory.

None of it would work, however, without the performances, especially Skarsgård. As Amleth, he embodies pure rage and vengeance in a truly remarkable fashion, immediately establishing himself with the likes of Tom Hardy as an actor that needs to say very little to make a huge impact. Eggers often shoots the Swedish actor from behind, where he’s so shockingly large that he really does look like a wild animal, always stalking his next victim. It’s a brilliant physical performance, and the whole film would fall apart if he wasn’t pitch-perfect.

The rest of the cast also delivers to varying degrees. Björk’s brand of weird doesn’t miss a beat here. Taylor-Joy compels as Olga, a disarmingly tough and layered woman. Nicole Kidman, as Aurvandil’s wife, feels underused, a throw-in that doesn’t justify her billing, until she impresses in the film's second half. And Willem Defoe is Willem Defoe, a beautiful lunatic who seems like he’s always been living in this world, waiting for Eggers to turn the camera on.


The Northman could be an absolute flop. It’s long, it’s painstakingly period-accurate down to almost impenetrable accents, it involves drawn-out single takes and fights between naked men on top of volcanoes. But it’s so bold, so brutal, and so well executed, I think it’s going to break through the middle and find the audience it was meant for. This was meant for the big screen, it was meant to fully immerse audiences. Eggers may be banned from doing anything but indie horror movies after this; enjoy the brilliance while you can.

The Northman opens in theaters everywhere on Fri., April 22. Learn more at focusfeatures.com/the-northman.

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