Where to even begin with this one. In many ways, I walked out of Robert Egger’s latest film with a similar feeling to what I had when I walked out of The Green Knight. Unlike that film, which was shrouded in vague symbolism to analyze for years, The Northman is surprisingly simple. But it has a similar sense of open-endedness that will have viewers asking: am I supposed to be rooting for the lead?
The Northman is the tale of Amleth, who in turn was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s own play Hamlet (which in turn would become the basis for The Lion King. Circle of life.) Amleth starts the film off as a youth, son of King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) and Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). After his uncle (Claes Bang) murders his father and claims the kingdom, Amleth flees and grows up into a hulking Alexander Skarsgård, hellbent on avenging his father, rescuing his mother and killing his uncle. Before he gets a clue about his uncle’s whereabouts, Amleth finds himself living as a berserker, raiding in the lands of Rus. But some of the captured slaves are en-route to his uncle, Fjölnir, so Amleth stows away on one of the slave ships in order to exact his revenge.
Eggers has had quite the task with The Northman. With a budget that’s estimated to be between $70 and $90 million, he had to make a film for the masses while also keeping in line with his signature style of “arthouse weird”, as seen in The Witch and The Lighthouse. As the box-office tells us, spending that amount of money on an arthouse film isn’t always a great idea, as the film flopped at the box office. And to be fair, that’s not a surprise. The Northman is definitely more of a surrealist slow-burn experience, rather than 300 or The Lord of the Rings, and maybe this film should have been more like that considering the budget.
There’s quite a bit of weird, trippy stuff happening that’s very much in line with the Scandanavian mythology, which plays a huge role in the film. A shaman speaks to Amleth with the help of a mummified head, Bezerkers have to transform from their human selves into their animal forms, magic swords exist, as do the Gods, Valkeries and Valhalla. One particular segment even reminded me of Dark Souls or Elden Ring. While this is going on, we’re left with a tapestry of violence and hate and by the end, we’re kind of left wondering should we care for Amleth?
Considering the time, peak Dark Ages, Amleth’s bloody quest for vengeance may seem noble and honorable, but looking at him through today’s lens and he comes off as a barbaric and evil S.O.B. at times. Thus the theme of the movie rears its head: violence, and hate, begets more of the same. Amleth doesn’t just go for the jugular on his revenge path, but torments and sows hatred, fear and bloodshed in the night. It’s up for us to decide if Amleth’s quest is righteous or not, but the movie seems to suggest a clear answer to this question by the end.
Visually stunning with great performances all around, The Northman very much ISN’T for everyone. It’s a bloodsoaked revenge quest, full of imagery that’s open for interpretation. It reminded me a lot of The Green Knight in many respects, but The Northman is also very much that film’s polar opposite. The Green Knight told a tale about chivalry and honour, whereas The Northman’s tale was about revenge and honour. The film’s portrayal of the pagan rituals and spirituality may be inaccessible for mainstream audiences and Eggers’ trippy direction might alienate viewers, but those who are into that and know what they’re getting into should find an interesting, if not familiar, supernatural Viking tale. Did I like it? Overall I’d say yes, but I also didn’t love it. And unlike The Green Knight, which I still ponder over, The Northman I think won’t leave as much of a lasting impression. But if you’re looking for an accessible, fun and entertaining Viking flick, perhaps it’s best to revisit The 13th Warrior.