In an age where it feels like only IP-based movies can keep their heads above water at the box office, The Northman feels like a bit of a miracle in terms of studio filmmaking. Not only is this a $90 mil. epic Viking drama with a hard-R rating and plenty of action and blood to spare, but it’s also directed by visionary filmmaker Robert Eggers. The Witch made a huge splash on the film scene back in 2016 and was immediately claimed as a horror classic, and I thought The Lighthouse was somehow an even better film. The Northman isn’t necessarily better or worse than either of these fantastic films, but it is on the same playing field in terms of quality and also serves as a natural next step for the filmmaker that just feels right; where The Witch and The Lighthouse felt very (intentionally) constrained in both scale and budget, The Northman truly feels like an auteur was able to take the money and run while throwing everything he could at the screen for two hours. It’s absolutely glorious.
The film follows Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) who is plagued by the traumatic memories from his childhood of his uncle brutally murdering his father and kidnapping his mother. He is now a grown man turned Viking whose only purpose seems to be part of his tribe and raid villages when need be. But he can’t escape being reminded of the vow he made as a child – to kill his uncle, save his mother, and avenge his father. This leads Amleth down a dark and brutal road as he heads north to reclaim his title as King and kill his uncle.
A lot of why this film works as well as it does is due to the absolutely tremendous performance from Alexander Skarsgård. In each and every frame, he looks like he’s in peak physical form and like a genuine Viking – there are moments in the film where he is so rageful that it is genuinely frightening. It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen from a lead in an action-oriented film in quite sometime. Anya Taylor-Joy plays Olga, a woman who Amleth falls in love with on his journey. Not only is she as fantastic as she always in, but she actually becomes the heart of the film amidst the brutality and violence. I’d also be remised to not bring up Nicole Kidman, who gets some of the absolute best sequences in the film that will send chills down your spine.
The real star of the film is Robert Eggers. From start to finish, this man directs the hell out of every single frame he can. It’s truly incredible to see a film with this high of a budget and a star-studded cast feel so alive and genuinely original at every turn. Early on in the film, there’s a sequence where Amleth is raiding a village and it’s presented entirely in one-take; it’s one of the most astounding and riveting action sequences I’ve seen in what feels like at least a decade. Even aside from the action sequences, it feels like a doozy that Eggers can weave in some genuinely compelling themes about toxic, patriarchal values and masculinity in the midst of such scale and brutality. It seems like in this day and age of blockbuster filmmaking that it would be inevitable for such a visionary director to get lost in the mix of a studio film, but Eggers proves himself worthy and every single second of this feels entirely his own.
Some viewers may find the first act or so to be too much of a slow-burn if they’re going into it expecting a pure action-spectacle, but I absolutely adored the way the film played out. And by the end of the film, I was absolutely riveted by the story being told and was quite literally on the edge of my seat due to the intensity and excitement I was feeling. The Northman feels like the best of both worlds; a genuine piece of art that also operates as an absolutely gnarly, energetic, and highly original action film. It’s already one of the best films of the year and one of the best films I’ve seen a studio crank out in at least a decade. What a picture!