The Northman features a sequence revolving around what could be described as a game of medieval Scandinavian Quidditch, the rules of which are vague but involve scoring by winging a ball off a stake of wood. More important than the ball or the stake or the score, however, is the amount of violence you can inflict upon the other team, as we see when the whole thing culminates in one man literally headbutting another man to death.
How much you enjoy The Northman depends upon how neat such a cranial bludgeoning sounds to you. Robert Eggers’s latest picture luxuriates in the barbarism of the distant past; this is a world of sacked villages and enslaved peoples, one in which children are consigned to a hut and burned alive rather than being allowed to become a burden to the victors. It’s a world of magic and visions, of witches and fools, of Valkyries and Valhalla.
The action begins with the return of King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) to his home. Wounded in battle, he is greeted by his wife, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and young son Amleth (Oscar Novak). After some bonding and a vision quest led by court jester Heimir (Willem Dafoe), Aurvandil is betrayed and murdered by his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who also attempts to slay young Amleth.
This being a tale of vengeance in addition to one of medieval Scandinavian Quidditch, Amleth survives, flees, and grows up to become Alexander Skarsgård, whose defining features are traps the size of beachballs and the viciousness of a wolf. On the way to claiming his vengeance, he falls in love with Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) and the two of them set out to make the life of Fjölnir and his clan miserable.
The Northman calls to mind Conan the Barbarian in the sense that it’s about a prince who, after his father is slain, gets jacked and learns the sweet art of murder in order to take vengeance upon the people who wronged him. Conan by way of Shakespeare—rearrange the name Amleth ever-so-slightly and we’re dealing with a fairly famous Danish prince—with a dash of The Green Knight thrown in for good measure. There’s no shortage of testosterone—violence, righteous and otherwise, is the coin of this realm—and every third scene we’re treated to visions, be they of combat with mound-dwelling demons guarding a mystical sword or witches relaying prophecies that condemn Amleth to a fiery fate on the rim of a volcano.
It’s a slightly strange movie, is what I’m getting at in my roundabout way. Eggers is no stranger to slightly strange movies. Sometimes that works out, as it did with The Witch, his transfixing radicalization narrative; sometimes it’s a bit of a wank, as it was with The Lighthouse. Regardless, there’s a purity of vision you have to respect and plenty of style to go with it. Eggers has a fondness for shots that, essentially, turn the camera in a circle or part of a circle, 90, 180, 360 degrees, giving us a sort of disconcerting all-around view, a reminder that everything changes when you shift perspectives slightly. A literalizing of the phrase “head on a swivel,” perhaps.
I don’t think I’m risking my reputation too badly here by predicting there will be a fairly large gap between critics (who are drawn to The Northman precisely because it is unusual) and audiences (many of whom will be repelled for precisely the same reason). But if you’re looking for an unapologetically bloody and masculine movie with just a dash of eerie energy to it, you’ll probably dig The Northman.