28 April 2022

First Impressions: The Northman

I knew this shit was going to be good but...wow. I mean...wow. This film quickly shot up on my all-time recent favourites list, and is going to be hard-pressed to be unseated by year's end. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the SPOILER-filled review of Robert Eggers' The Northman (2022).
It's hard to tell if Eggers is a thing or not yet. Despite helming both The VVitch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), which feel like they've had a big cultural impact, I'd say he's still pretty outside of the mainstream. The VVitch made $40 million worldwide and The Lighthouse wasn't even that high, with $18 million. And I don't know if the average person would know what the hell I was doing if I started chanting "BLACK PHILLIP!" or "Why'd ya spill yer beans!" and then farted. And while both are critical darlings sitting at 90%, they haven't done any awards anything besides critic circles.
Folks are already saying The Northman is a bomb, which I always think is both cynical and a little premature. We seem to always want to root for movies to fail, which I don't understand why. But also, you should go see this movie if you want to see more of these kinds of movies being made. We also always complain that all we have is Marvel films, but we don't support films like The Northman. ANYWAY, my point is that I think Eggers deserves a lot more mainstream credit at this point (or maybe not, his films are really out there), but where he is with film twitter right now is a good place. Let's get into this whopping film.
It opens on a volcano and that kind of fury is all you really need to know. The basic core of the film is a very simple, age-old premise. A Viking king returns from war to greet his family, fears his death and so names his heir, but is killed by his brother. His son grows up and swears vengeance on his uncle. It's basically The Lion King (1994). I guess that's also Hamlet. There are also elements of Gangs of New York (2002) in there when the son comes back as a man and his target doesn't recognize him, and at times feels sympathy for the man he has vowed to kill.
But since this is a Robert Eggers film, somehow every turn is unexpected. Every great moment is cynically undercut, and it's fantastic. Alexander Skarsgard - Tarzan himself - plays the son who becomes a berserker Viking pillaging the Land of Rus at whim, generally acknowledged as the greatest warrior. He hears that his uncle no longer has his kingdom and has been reduced to a sheep-herding chieftain in Iceland. He disguises himself as a slave in a move from Gladiator (2000), although this is on purpose, not coercion, and stows away on the ship.
It's a film about how stupid this revenge is. It's first undercut by the fact that Skarsgard is not reclaiming his kingdom or throne. He's just killing a sheep herder. But his mind is clouded by rage. I have seen some folks talk about how this movie encourages toxic masculinity and here's my take on that: if you are someone who is reading into his obsession and deeds as a noble path to aspire to, that says something very dangerous and sad about you. It was crystal clear to me that Skarsgard's quest is folly and fruitless, and I'd like to spend most of this post talking about why.
He keeps repeating his mantra - Avenge his father, save his mother, kill his uncle (who has definitely a difficult Scandinavian name, trust me, this film does not skimp on that). However, near the end of the film we get the huge revelation from Nicole Kidman (his mother) that his father was a total bush. His father was not a great ruler, despised by most, hated by his wife, a slave-owning rapist who was an arrogant coward.
By that same vein, his mother doesn't need saving, she's the one who plotted to kill him, and intended to kill Amleth, her son as well! So his first two obsessions and fuel for revenge are totally meaningless. And his uncle, despite killing his father, is actually shown to be a pretty decent dude. He teaches both of his sons important life lessons, is generally positively regarded by the tribe, and seems to be leading okay, despite being kicked out of their homeland.
He does reach his goal of killing his uncle, but in the process is he himself killed. We can't mention this without clarifying that this is during a naked volcano fight, but it's also what he chooses instead of being father to his own children. See, he bangs Ana Taylor-Joy and can sense through her blood tree that she's pregnant with twins. This is all while sailing away on a boat. They were done, they were free forever. Instead, he gets paranoid and swims back to his doom. I don't know how you could read this as an endorsement of masculinity, he really screws up by letting his rage and hatred overcome the love and kindness he has for his family. It's tragic.
It also a much older story structure that harkens back to old legends. It is based on a real Viking legend, and there is much of that epic quality here, from witches foretelling the story, the hero getting help from the gods, and going on a mystical quest to obtain a sword that can vanquish evil. All the good stuff. It feels bizarre that Amleth is so concerned with fulfilling his fate, we could have a whole talk about fate vs. free will here, as he feels he has none, even saying that he isn’t fated to kill his uncle yet until they battle on a Lake of Fire. He keeps refusing to make his own decision and instead gives himself up to destiny.
That sword is gnarly, though. It should enter the ranks of all time great cinema weapons. It thirsts for blood, can only be unsheathed at night, and can never dull or break. It’s pretty cool. It’s also guarded by a giant soldier who literally had one job – stay out of the moonlight, but then he’s pushed slightly into its rays and dies. Oh well.
On that note, the cinematography is unreal. The nights are so dark, but you can still tell what’s going on. There are some great bits of framing, like the gates of the initiation ceremony and even an impressive shot where we see the Viking canoes through two bushes, then the camera presses in and finds its rest in the canoe’s center. It’s really a wild shot and I have no idea how they got a camera there. There’s also a few astounding long action shots, from the siege in Rus to the final volcano battle. Eggers seems to always let the action play out with clarity on screen, which is enormously refreshing. It might be because I just watched Drive Angry (2011), check out how many indecipherable cuts there are in the first scene.
The movie’s also about taming man and separating him from the beasts. It’s never too much of a problem that they act like insane animals all the time, but there is certainly this movement that Skarsgard goes through from idolizing acting like a wolf to becoming a reasonable and responsible husband. Again, in the end, he chooses being an insane wolf and I have no idea how folks could see that as an endorsement of that kind of behavior.
Let’s talk about the acting! Because this is the kind of movie where everything hits – it’s gorgeous to look at, the themes are well-developed, the plot is intriguing, and the performances are killer. Nicole Kidman seems like a weird choice for the put-upon mother but then she goes extremely off-kilter, dabbling in incest, murder, and carnage, but it’s all pretty motivated. A+ in my book.
Her husband is played by Claes Bang, who I did not recognize but is totally from The Square (2015), which is fantastic and I just saw. He is great at playing slightly sleazy and sinister, but ultimately a good and rational man. His kids are impetus and a little stock, but that’s okay. Bill Skarsgard was originally going to play Thorir, which would have been fun to see the actual brothers on screen.
Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe appear briefly as the old King and court jester respectively. Dafoe is typically insane and weird but it really works here. Hawke is good, I was surprised he can play that old. Well, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, he’s getting up there, but that might be the weak spot for me.
Ana Taylor-Joy brings back her Russian accent from The New Mutants (2020), but it’s a bit better this time around. She’s amazing, and her fury calling the winds to speed her sails is one of the more badass moments I can remember in a movie filled with badass moments. She brings sadness, hope, and steely determination to what could have been a pretty thankless love interest role.
Skarsgard himself is great, he’s not too much more than a hulking mass, but his performance is so subtle here. He also has such sadness in his eyes, which fights with such fury that he can’t control as he’s taught that the only way for a man to express himself is rage. He has a characteristic hunch, which he did well in War on Everyone (2016), which brings him back to his animal-like behavior and also befits his status as a slave. He rarely stands upright, he more sulks and lurks his way around this movie. It works really well, it’s weird to say he has one of the more distinctive postures in Hollywood, but they take advantage of it here.
He doesn’t have too many lines or emotes too much, but he assuredly feels like the best dude for this plot. There are so many ripped young dudes in Hollywood, Skarsgard has always had some trouble standing out, but I hope this can launch his career a bit. Or maybe it’s already launched, he was in Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) after all. And really unused there. He should have done more screaming.

I really dug this film, it’s that rare gem where everything just clicks and every box is ticked. I would watch it every day until my eyes bleed and are pecked out by crows – it’s definitely not for everyone but it really worked for me. I’m curious to see what kind of attention it gets, I don’t think it has gotten even the critical appreciation it deserves so far, and I hope the Academy remembers it a year from now.

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