Robert Eggers unleashes a poetically brutal and nuanced tale of vengeance
Robert Eggers is easily one of the most exciting young auteurs working in cinema today. After making a name for himself with The Witch, which masterfully utilizes the metaphor of witchcraft to tell the story of one woman’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) coming of age, he next crafted The Lighthouse, a cinematic descent into madness of two lighthouse keepers (Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe) pulsing with homoerotic undertones. This film not only solidified him as a visionary director, cracking the sophomore slump with such an audacious and surreal black and white nightmare, but designated him as someone not afraid to explore the darker spaces of the human psyche. For his third film, it feels like a make or break moment with an impressive cast that brings back some familiar faces for the director, along with the likes of Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Claes Bang, and fucking Björk, who hasn’t done a film of this magnitude since Lars Von Trier’s grim musical masterpiece Dancer in the Dark.
While The Northman is Eggers’ most conventional film, it manages to still keep with the visuals and colorful characters that fans of the director are accustomed to. Simply put, it’s a story of vengeance. Skarsgård plays Amleth, whose father was king and was murdered by his brother, who also took his Amleth’s mother as his wife afterward. As a young boy he witnesses this brutal assisination, and makes an oath to: “avenge his father, save his mother, kill his uncle.” The film then jumps two decades later and Amleth is a Viking berserker, a hulking mass of bloodthirsty brutality that spends his days raiding and killing. He has fashioned himself into the near perfect blunt instrument and after his most recent raid, he receives a vision and instructions to go north to Iceland to fulfill his vow. When he discovers some of his prisoners are to be sent to his uncle’s kingdom as slaves, he brands himself as a slave and hides among them, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. This is where he meets the mysterious Olga (Taylor-Joy), a Slavic witch with a spiritual connection to the earth gods and a common goal.
Drawing upon the rich tapestry of Norse mythology and culture, Eggers spins a visceral tale of vengeance, love, and destiny. It’s only as Amleth, who has numbed himself to the world, nearly completes his task that he discovers in a very tragic moment that he still has the capacity to love through his relationship with Olga. It’s a bittersweet dynamic between Taylor-Joy and Skarsgård as Amleth is forced to choose between his vow to his father and continuing the thread of his lineage. This dynamic of family history is illustrated in a very graphic and awe-inspiring way that allows the full weight of this question of legacy to shine through. The imagery and cinematography here, while very stylistic, do double duty, working to further enrich the story and the characters who inhabit this grim tale. Skarsgård is a literal force to be reckoned with on screen, in a very imposing yet nearly silent role that has him using all his other tools at his disposal except his voice to turn in this dense performance. The most surprising one here, however, is Kidman, who turns in a scene that firmly planted my jaw on the floor for the remainder of the film.
Hopefully, The Northman’s “Game of Thrones meets 300” premise should be an easy sell to the multiplex audience. It’s a poetically brutal and nuanced tale of vengeance that makes me hopeful that this film catapults Eggers into even more ambitious narratives and budgets going forward. The Northman is proof it’s not simply the story, but the storyteller, since Eggers has turned in three completely different films that were all extremely effective in their storytelling and still linked by his trademark themes and fetishes, like the director’s love of toying with linguistics.That’s not an easy feat to have the breadth of voice as a director and to play in different genres, all with similar result. As far as I am concerned, he’s three for three with The Northman, which is nothing short of a grim masterwork of guttural vengeance, with plenty of subtext for those like myself looking to dig deeper on repeated viewings. While this may be his broadest film, it still has the raw force to eviscerate audiences with the power of a blunt broadsword to the head.