The Northman Review: A brutal masterpiece of revenge
While the films of Robert Eggers, The Witch and The Lighthouse, have made the writer/director a prevailing force in the indie horror space, his more abstract and atmospheric approach hasn’t always connected with wider audiences. The Witch, in particular, was incredibly divisive upon its release for that exact reason. Eggers’ latest film, The Northman, takes the director to a whole new level though with how it mixes his visionary aesthetics with an engaging tale of revenge.
Eggers’ greatest strengths have always shown in the environments and atmosphere he creates as he really transports viewers back in time. His devotion to historical accuracy really makes his visuals more engaging and settings more immersive, something that’s especially true with The Northman. With the incredible location scouting and cinematography from Jarin Blaschke, every scene in The Northman is absolutely eye-catching. From lush open valleys sitting in between giant mountains to thick darkened forests that surround hidden villages, The Northman is easily Eggers’ most stunning film to date.
As per usual with Eggers’ films, the visuals and setting play a larger role than just looking good and end up elevating the film’s central revenge story of Amieth (Alexander Skarsgard), a fearsome warrior prince who goes on a path of vengeance after his father Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) is killed by his brother Fjolner (Claes Bang). As Amieth moves from the deep depravity he finds himself in after his father is killed to working his way into Fjolner’s village, the distinct settings throughout the film add to Amieth’s personal arc through the tones and emotions they evoke. It really feels like Amieth is slowly coming out of this darkness and regaining purpose in his path of vengeance simply through the places you see him traverse and it’s just one way that Eggers creates this expanse, character-driven story.
At face value, it’s easy to let the physical presence of Amieth and other warriors throughout the film guide your impressions of them. Their dominating physicality and ferocity in battle as well as their hulking builds certainly embody what anyone would expect when they picture a Viking warrior. However, the film creates deeper representations of Amieth and this warrior mentality through these mesmerizing scenes that tie into Nordic mysticism. Early on, there’s this great ritualistic bond crafted between a younger Amieth and Aurvandill that excellently establishes Amieth’s drive to avenge his father and there are these great supernatural instances throughout his journey that create this sense of fate in Amieth’s journey. Eggers’ use of mysticism here not only allows for a greater connection to wider Nordic mythology to flourish and connect with viewers, but also creates deeper motivations for Amieth and other characters.
The Northman features all the great elements of Eggers’ more auteur stories and with the film’s bigger budget, it feels like Eggers was truly able to achieve the scope of his vision making The Northman his most ambitious film ever. What makes The Northman different from his past works though is how Eggers hones his vision to elevate a classic revenge tale. Where The Witch and The Lighthouse can feel aimless in their stories, Aimeth’s journey in The Northman is given great focus and is an engaging throughline throughout the film.
At its core, The Northman has the expected beats of a classic revenge tale where Amieth quietly falls into Fljolner’s ranks to slowly break him down until the big duel to the death. However, that doesn’t make it ever come off generic and it’s actually a strength for Eggers and co-writer Sjon to tap into a well-known revenge story structure as it makes it easier to connect to. Amongst the awe-striking atmosphere and strong mythos is a personal tale of vengeance that’s well-established from the start and only manages to become even more engaging and thrilling as it goes on.
No detailed feels spared in having viewers connect with the pain and anger that drives Amieth and understanding his need to avenge his family. Even after certain revelations are made, you want to see his journey to the end, no matter how brutal it may be, and it’s great that even though the story is familiar, there are elements that greatly set it apart. Skarsgard excellently walks the line between man and beast as Amieth becoming a haunting force on-screen that’s legitimately scary at times. Even in his most bloodhungry moments though, there are still shreds of humanity that still come through in his performance and his motivations never fade. There’s even a great revelation that comes with Amieth’s mother Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) that add some deeper emotional aches within his arc and change everything.
Not to mention, in between all these great story beats of The Northman is the mind-blowing action that Eggers crafts. To say that The Northman can be brutal would be a drastic understatement as it pulls no punches in showcasing the brutality and bloodshed of this tale. Some of the kills and fights will literally leave your jaw hanging and the psychological warfare that comes from Amieth is absolutely shocking. It all leads to an instantly iconic ending that offers a fulfilling and tragic end to Amieth’s journey as well as some epic fighting that’s a cinematic delight.
The Northman is a brutal masterpiece of revenge that culminates in Eggers’ best film thus far. It’s an excellent combination of Eggers’ ability to create immersive, atmospheric worlds and classic character-driven storytelling that makes for a breathtaking thrill ride that can’t be missed.