Directed by: Robert Eggers || Produced by: Mark Huffam, Lars Knudsen, Robert Eggers, Alexander Skarsgård, Arnon Milchan
Screenplay by: Sjón Birgir Sigurosson, Robert Eggers || Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, Willem Dafoe
Music by: Robin Carolan, Sebastian Gainsborough || Cinematography: Jarin Blaschke || Edited by: Louise Ford || Country: United States || Language: English, Old Norse, Old East Slavic
Running Time: 137 minutes
Alexander Skarsgård, the handsome, 6’4″ (~193 cm) Swede, has long struck me as a capable Hollywood actor on the cusp of mainstream stardom. Some of this perception is subjective, as I didn’t notice him in Ben Stiller’s Zoolander (2001), didn’t watch Generation Kill (2008) on HBO until college, and to this day have never seen the forgotten Hollywood blockbusters of Battleship (2012) or The Legend of Tarzan (2016). True Blood (2008-2014), the HBO horror-melodrama allegory for LGBTQ rights and previously Skarsgård’s highest profile role to date, also flew over my head given how I was not that show’s target demographic. In recent years, he seemed to have faded into the background of the international film industry relative to his brother, Bill (Pennywise the Dancing Clown!), and father, Stellan (you’ve seen him in everything), given his supporting roles in smaller, more auteur-driven pictures like Hidden (2015), Hold the Dark (2018), Passing (2021)… Godzilla vs. Kong (2021), etc!
By a similar token, I’ve pondered whether writer-director Robert Eggers would ever transition from his artsy, independent film origins since his 2015 horror breakout, The Witch, which remains one of my favorite spooky movies of the last decade. The Lighthouse (2019), his sophomore feature and performance-vehicle for versatile actors Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson (they’re the only named characters in the entire film), didn’t seduce me as much as The Witch, but showcased the stylized, folkloric, fully formed vision of his debut was no fluke. Eggers’ utilization of nontraditional aspect ratios, unique frame composition, and subtle, almost unnoticeable tracking shots over mythological subject-matter produce a sort of fantasy tone despite his films’ general lack of elaborate special FX or adventure stories.
The Northman, the third directorial project by Eggers and Skarsgård’s most sizeable lead role to date, represents a culmination of both artists’ recent career work. A modern cinematic incarnation of the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, the narrative prototype to William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603) and its various illegitimate offspring (e.g. The Lion King , Haider , etc.), The Northman feels like a sort of pan-northern European celebration of medieval culture and combat; Eggers uses the Amleth/Hamelt-revenge story as a loose narrative framework on which to build his gruesome, volatile diegetic backdrop of Viking communities, as well as to provide straightforward, mass audience-friendly motivation for Skarsgård’s eponymous protagonist to progress though the plot. After a brief but memorable prologue where antagonist Claes Bang, Skarsgård’s paternal uncle, usurps his brother and Skarsgård’s father, Ethan Hawke, in their Icelandic island kingdom, the movie flashes forward to our protagonist’s adulthood as a Viking berserker in eastern Europe. The near universal, almost archetypal plot-points of this Hamlet-formula may help general audiences unfamiliar with the eclectic, fantastical arthouse style favored by director of photography Jarin Blaschke, the cinematographer for all three of Eggers’ films thus far, find their bearings throughout The Northman.
Top to bottom, Eggers’ auteur stamp is the single biggest selling-point and the most identifiable attribute of this film, which is no surprise given his burgeoning, uncompromised filmography, but it’s also The Northman’s biggest hurdle to mainstream box office success (about a month after its release, The Northman grossed ~$65 million on a ~$80 million budget). Eggers’ audiovisual style is nothing if not charismatic, and his dedication to historical detail (minus the contemporary English language, of course), a deliberate storytelling rhythm, and psychedelic visuals separate this Viking epic from so many other generic, forgettable historical pictures about royal melodrama, holy wars, epic political campaigns, revenge, etc.
The film’s slow pace, longwinded running time (137 minutes), and lackluster antagonists (Bang, Nicole Kidman, Gustav Lindh, et al. are flavorless), on the other hand, may explain the movie’s lackluster box office performance when most audiences might expect Gladiator (2000) from the film’s marketing. More to the point, anything that’s not a major tentpole blockbuster doesn’t seem to perform well in today’s theatrical environment (superficially similar historical epics like Kingdom of Heaven , Ben-Hur , and The Last Duel  failed to replicate Gladiator’s success), and The Northman is the exact sort of mid-budgeted genre picture that doesn’t make money anymore in Hollywood.
On the happier side of things, The Northman remains Eggers and Skarsgård at their best and most accessible. Cinematographically, it feels congruent with both The Lighthouse and The Witch, but with the added hyperviolence of a Viking revenge saga. Skarsgård is a vicious, intimidating beast of a man with a relatable human heart despite his outward violence, a likable character in part due to the brutal prologue that establishes his motivation for revenge. His screen presence alone does much to drive the forward progression of the greater story, while his relationship with female lade Anya Taylor-Joy in the second and third acts grounds his character outside his one-dimensional drive for bloodshed. Tying all these features together are the film’s plethora of ambiguous, surrealist fantasy sequences, often rationalized diegetically as characters experiencing drug-fueled trances, nightmares, or inner monologues, as well as the much flaunted, well choreographed action sequences centered around Skarsgård’s hulking physique.
In the end, The Northman represents another example of how in Hollywood, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Co-writer-director Robert Eggers and star-producer Alexander Skarsgård combine for their best work yet, the former’s most mainstream, his largest in scope by far, and the latter’s most expansive lead role. Eggers sacrifices none of his auteur style while Skarsgård embraces his role’s physicality the way few actors have in recent years, including the stars of the most excessive of FX-driven blockbusters. Assuming a film like this, with its few yet significant faults in mind, would ever be a surefire box office success was a fool’s errand from the start, but The Northman remains one of the better fantasy-adventure or historical period dramas since Gladiator.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Epic in physical scale yet intimate in narrative focus, The Northman is the contemporary arthouse version of Hollywood’s high-production value, big-budget sword-and-sandal/medieval/fantasy epics of old, and for the most part, it works. The movie’s got brains, brawn, and a rich cultural background.
— However… like most contemporary American genre films with any semblance of action spectacle, The Northman can’t be bothered to end in less than 130 minutes. Its villains pail in comparison to Skarsgård’s great lead.
—> RECOMMENDED for the barbarians in you and your family.
? Maybe it was the Christians? After all, their god is a corpse nailed to a tree!
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