“Hate is all I’ve ever known, but I wish I could be free of it.”
There’s a point in The Northman where we’re greeted with a grotesque sight – the severed head of a character we saw much earlier in the movie. Except now, said character has had his role usurped by a new individual. In many ways, this is an inelegant visualization of one of the movie’s themes – how finite life can be. Whatever steps we take, roles we assume, seats we fill, and pathways we walk – these are all spaces that were occupied by the people before us, and new individuals are waiting in the wings to take our place when the time comes.
The Northman is the latest from director Robert Eggers, a gruesome tale about revenge and consequence. We follow Amleth (a Herculean Peter Skarsgård), exiled from his homeland after the coup and murder of his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), following the Aurvandil’s King’s Landing like homecoming. Since that day, he’s vowed to avenge his father and free his mother Guðrún (Nicole Kidman) from captivity, like Arya Stark sharpening her blade. When we meet Amleth as an adult, he is a brutish warrior who has joined a berserker gang and honed his skills as a powerful fighter. But he has never forgotten about his boyhood mission, and soon an opportunity arises for him to take his revenge and redeem his family name. But unfortunately, Amleth has much to learn about the sins of the past.
During his trek, Amleth encounters a multitude of tests expected within the Hero’s Journey – which allows the movie to garnish the story with a bevy of action setpieces. Eggers, thus, gets in his bag with several tracking shots that allow him to display intense violence without hiding behind a multitude of cuts. You can feel the sweat and the blood as people are decapitated, stabbed, and pillard. Perhaps the best scene in the entire film is a duel Amleth has with a mythological entity, utilizing a grayish filter as the two jousts while the camera expertly keeps up. Skarsgård is filmed to appropriately look like a badass at all times, and his displays of toughness and power are reminiscent of 80s action stars, comic book splash pages, and anime aces.
As the latest release from A24, the film is among the attempts from the studio to bring back the mid-budget movie. At times, The Northman looks intentionally low-budget, utilizing tight shots and manipulating a small amount of space. However, at times the scale exceeds to big budget action fare, with striking shots. But the movie’s action never becomes indecipherable, nor does it stick around long enough to bore.
The movie’s closest doppelganger, among a myriad of medieval tales about betrayal, is probably Gladiator. Both center on a wronged and lone vigilante attempting to confront a corrupt power structure. In that vein, the two films are similarly positioned to please audiences by showcasing the will it takes to right the wrongs of empiric rule. However, in The Northman, it at least makes more sense why they didn’t just kill the hero in the first 20 minutes. Although the movie can’t completely avoid that pitfall, as later on Amleth’s rival keeps him alive… because he knows the whereabouts of a deceased person’s severed heart. OK, not all the story beats can be winners, but what the story does well is balance the bloodthirst of our protagonist with his latent desire to find a peace he’s never known – a worldview without hate, as signaled by his quote at the top of this review.
As his brutal journey continues, Amleth begins to fall for a hapless young woman named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). The two end up trading turns saving each other’s lives, and it’s through their romance that The Northman becomes a bit spiritual, and it is through that lens that the movie second-guesses Amleth’s motives. The film contemplates the usefulness of revenge, juxtaposed with themes concerning the future – Amleth sees multiple visions of the possible life that awaits him, while Olga persistently reminds him to keep moving forward. However, Amleth can’t move forward because hate has consumed him. To entertain the allure of revenge is to allow yourself to be swallowed by the past – Amleth is too busy looking backward in order to adequately move forward.
His predicament is cleverly mirrored by the movie’s actual antagonist, a character who seems mostly unassuming until the last third of the film. Some might be able to see this revelation coming, as the breadcrumbs are there from what isn’t shown early on, but this late-arriving character motivation helps to critique Amleth’s ambitions. Amleth discovers this character is just as poisoned by the past as he is, choosing to allow past transgressions to motivate their present villainy, even if it ruins the lives of those innocent from those transgressions.
Now, do you need to look for or engage with the film’s subtext? Technically no, and many will appreciate it for the gorgeous fantasy epic that it is. But like The Green Knight last year (the most underrated film of 2021 – even I didn’t give it its proper due in retrospect), The Northman is as much about questioning the lessons we can obtain from the fabled quest as it is about indulging the pleasures of it. To be fair, The Northman indulges more than The Green Knight, giving our hero more violence, sex, and hero shots to allow the audience to live vicariously through him. But its story is perhaps even more skeptical of the masculine journey, questioning how fulfilling it can be or if it is ultimately irredeemably destructive. When Amleth’s journey ends, he gets a new vision, with subtle differences that may or may not give off an intentional message. Is Eggers signaling that Amleth’s choices have negatively impacted his family’s chances to rule and have nobility?
That’s the riches of The Northman. It draws you in as a violent retelling of Hamlet but has its own ideas and motifs beneath the surface. Visually splendid, accompanied by top-notch performances by Skarsgård, Kidman, Hawke, Taylor-Joy, a ruthless Claes Bang, and a seemingly faded Willem Dafoe. It takes the hero myth and gets existential about it all. Amleth’s journey is but a blip on the radar in the universe. Thus his time will come and go. His journey becomes not about immortalizing himself, like the Conans or the Maximus’, but making his time count in the present. For truly, that’s all we can ever control.