The Witch and The Lighthouse director Robert Eggers is many things. He’s a meticulous craftsman with an eye for striking compositions. He’s a bearded hipster in a Carhartt jacket. If Facebook commenters are to be believed, he’s an “elevated horror” bogeyman who represents everything that’s wrong with the genre today. But above all that, he’s a history nerd. Eggers is the type of person who reads medieval Icelandic literature for fun — which is exactly how his latest project, the bloody Viking revenge saga The Northman, came into being.
The film’s press notes describe it as a painstakingly researched deep dive into the Viking lifestyle and worldview, backed by archaeologists and historians. But the experience of watching it isn’t nearly so dry and lofty. The actual movie feels more like a heavy-metal music video, a testosterone-fueled melange of fire, blood, nudity, and screaming, fueled by hatred and hallucinatory shamanic rituals.
As is always the case in Eggers’ films, the line between belief in the supernatural and actual supernatural events is open to individual interpretation. But the characters have no doubt that the dead walk in the shadows, men can be possessed by wolves, and Valkyries will come to escort them to Valhalla if they’re lucky enough to die in battle. This is a movie where a wizard casts a spell using pieces cut off of Willem Dafoe’s severed, dessicated head, and Björk appears with a crown of wheat and the fates of men spun between her fingers.
Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth, son of a warrior-monarch known as the Raven King (Ethan Hawke). In childhood, Amleth witnesses his father’s murder at the hands of his uncle Fjölnir (Cleas Bang), and dedicates his life to revenge. The Shakespearan parallels grow deeper when Fjölnir marries his brother’s wife, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), who turns out to be a better Lady Macbeth than anyone in the Scottish play. As an adult, Amleth discovers this by following rumors to Iceland, where Fjölnir and his men have reinvented themselves as sheep farmers after losing their stolen kingdom to mightier Norwegian marauders. There, Amleth disguises himself as a slave and embarks on a campaign of guerilla warfare with the help of Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), a Slavic witch who is also enslaved on Fjölnir’s land. Amleth is also aided by ravens, which periodically appear and remind him of the injustice done to his family.
The violence that follows (and precedes) Amleth’s arrival in Iceland is gory and graphic, and Eggers films Viking raids on humble villages in impressively choreographed tracking shots that glide through the blood, mud, and gurgling death rattles of dozens of sackcloth-clad extras. The dialogue similarly blends savagery with bombast: One character chokes out a death curse, promising to plague his killer until “a flaming vengeance gorges on your flesh.” Another optimistically tells a friend, “together we will rage on the battlefield of corpses.” Place all this against the majestic Icelandic landscape and an aural backdrop of booming drums and deep bass chants that roll in like a thunderstorm, and the effect is appropriately awe-inspiring.
Although the scene where Amleth bludgeons a man to death with his head is probably not historically necessary, the brutality on display throughout The Northman isn’t entirely gratuitous. Viking culture placed great emphasis on dominance through brute force: At one point, a character refers to becoming a “graybeard” — i.e., living long enough for your hair to turn white — as a shameful fate that’s worse than death. (For the women, this culture of subjugation manifests as the continual threat of sexual violence, which Eggers thankfully leaves mostly offscreen.) This contrasts with a more modern narrative thread, questioning whether Amleth’s revenge plot is ultimately a futile and misguided gesture.
Without going into too much detail, Amleth (and Eggers) ultimately decide to take the culturally accurate route. This neatly wraps up the narrative, but it points to a weakness in The Northman that makes it less resonant than Eggers’ debut film, The Witch. That film asked whether it was witchcraft or a society that believed in witchcraft that was to blame for the persecution of women like the protagonist, Thomasin (also played by Taylor-Joy). That thread is present here, too, although Eggers seems to be having more fun leading the wild hunt than pondering its implications.
And ultimately, the more thoughtful themes in The Northman’s script are drowned out by the beating of feral drums, and washed away in a river of carnage, culminating in a grimy naked swordfight in a field of lava, as repeatedly promised by prophecy throughout the film. But although the film ends up as a shallow rumination on revenge and single-minded dominance, it’s hard to beat as spectacle. In terms of making history exciting and engrossing, The Northman is about as titillating as gateway drugs get.
The Northman is available in theaters now.