One cannot run from their fate. The path between now and one’s destiny is filled with choice, but the end result will be the same. Should they try to run, their destiny will find them wherever they lurk. For Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), his destiny was chosen for him by his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Through killing Amleth’s father, the King of their village, Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), Fjölnir took the throne and Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). With his dying breath, War-Raven commanded his son to avenge his death, an oath that Amleth took and also swore to free his mother. Though he journeyed elsewhere and built up the strength and skill to undertake his task of brutal revenge, Amleth is found by his destiny. Not only do seers and animal guides bring him where he needs to be, but pure chance seems to bring him on a crash course to Fjölnir. Amleth, a figure from Scandinavian legend and an important inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and his journey to avenge his father take center stage in this brutal, unrelenting, and enthralling film from director Robert Eggers.
Eggers, thus far in his career, prizes quiet yet visceral discomfort. The Northman unfolds as with many revenge pictures plot-wise, while also being layered in mythological homages and plenty of discussion regarding fatalism, but its great success is beyond its ideological foundation. It is that atmosphere of constant dread. Whether in The Witch, The Lighthouse, or The Northman, Eggers not only captures a visual look but also the feeling of experiencing a living nightmare. In this case, Amleth is that nightmare. With him follows death and destruction with his hate clouding the sky, his own soul, and his path. At first traveling with a group of savage Vikings, fighting as a berserker in a truly possessed state of bloodlust before hiding as a slave owned by Fjölnir to get close to him undetected, his journey is always on the brink of horrific bloodshed. Eggers punctuates with various scenes of gore and horror, which prove almost numbing in totality. It is simply another day, another disemboweled body strung up for the village to see. The Northman slowly burns its way to his fated conclusion of a showdown between Amleth and Fjölnir, all the while living up to the nightmare that Amleth wishes to cause. One cannot look away, so uncertain and unsettled about what might next occur that the viewer fights the urge to hide their eyes from the screen while staring at the screen in a horrified trance. This is a truly unrelenting experience, one that grabs the viewer by the scruff of the neck and never lets go, even well after the credits end. It is a true experience, one that creeps into the mind of the viewer and almost demands to be viewed again.
Eggers, as before and especially so in The Witch, excels in research and bringing such dense material to the screen. Littering the film with characters and details from mythology and Viking culture, The Northman is an appropriately mystical and otherworldly experience. Gorgeous montages, superimpositions, and dream sequences find not only stunning visual effects work – the bluish glow around the valkyrie and the beckoning light of Valhalla or the haunting camera pan up the family tree resting within the soul of War-Raven and mind of Amleth are true highlights – but great mythical importance. An encounter with a seer is particularly haunting, blending intense close-ups, the creeping shadows of the background, and the horrifying intensity of the voice alteration that sends chills down both the viewer and Amleth’s spine. Though dense and contributing to the overall impressive world that Eggers brings to life, it all largely points to the fate bestowed upon men like Amleth. His father would, more than likely, be killed at some point and it would be his duty to avenge that death. It just so happened it would involve killing his uncle, but as a warrior, War-Raven wanted to die by the blade. Thus, Amleth’s fate was almost pre-destined to involve revenge and hate. It marks his path at every turn and while he has the choice to choose kindness through Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) or to embrace his hatred at the burning lake, this slight bit of free-will does not change his fate. By that point, Fjölnir hates him and would hunt him down, bringing that hate to his doorstep rather than at Fjölnir’s. Amleth is forever who he was meant to be, at times desperate to escape but at others so driven by adrenaline that the sheer horror of it all barely phases him. This is a man in a Viking world, consumed by blood and destruction, holding the last tear he was allowed to cry in his pocket, and urged into being more wolf than man in order to go about his wicked business. The moments he sheds this and shows a gentle, nurturing side with Olga are few, yet impactful – just as they were when War-Raven showed his fatherly affection for his son, openly and honestly – for their exception to the otherwise carnage-defined way of life he must lead. Yet, even these were predestined with his fortune telling revealing an encounter with a Maiden-King that reveals itself to be Olga, while he even has visions of his future children with her. Amleth is always keenly aware of his known future, acknowledging that he must bide his time and follow the path ordained to him by the seers before indulging in his revenge and remaining committed to that process. This is no Oedipal journey of a man so consumed by his fate that he brings it accidentally into existence. This is the journey of a man so consumed by his fate that he does whatever he must to ensure it becomes reality. It is who he is as a Viking. He swore an oath to kill his father’s killer and to ride into Valhalla as a true warrior. All else is peripheral, no matter how sweet or beloved.
The rituals of The Northman are just as violent and chaotic with bone chilling chanting/songs mixed with ritual executions and sacrifices that further fill this film with the stench of death. It fills the look and feel of the film, an oppressive grayness and bleak blackness that fills every frame, punctuated only by the orange flames of a ritualistic fire or a burning village. While Eggers and DP Jarin Blaschke mix in a heavy dose of gorgeous long shots that soak up the vast terrain around the action, the film is never as hypnotic as when it is in close-up or lit by firelight. The intensity of a fire glowing face staring straight at the camera or watching a man go through a ritual song and dance while brutality occurs just off-screen proves to be a horrifying yet terribly captivating sequence that is hard to shake. This visual intensity is matched by the intensity in the performances. The slow, gravely voice of many of the men, including Ethan Hawke and Claes Bang, sets an uneasy tone while the passion and sternness in the tone of Nicole Kidman’s voice cuts through any emotional attachment with a knife. Willem Dafoe’s almost unsettling voice befits his fool/seer role, seeming to twist his words into riddles and his tongue into an incisive weapon with each utterance. This is a rough, unrelenting world matched by actors who capture the direct way with which their characters speak with full veracity and commitment. Alexander Skarsgård has a bit more humanity to him at times – especially when with Anya Taylor-Joy – but it is layered beneath the out-of-body experiences he has in battle where his intimidating physique and physical skill breaks through into a truly awe-inspiring and powerful display of strength.
Robert Eggers’ The Northman is another rousing success for the young director who has developed not only a unique voice and look, but a distinct feeling to his films. It is as though they are waking nightmares with one torn between hiding their eyes or staring in terror at the screen from moment-to-moment. His uneasy tone and commitment to detail in building out the worlds that he explores in his films make his films into a truly excellent experience, no matter how chilling. The Northman is no exception, blending masterful action with shocking violence, strong performances, thought-provoking mythology, and gorgeous cinematography to create a well-rounded and great viewing experience.