Moviegoer: The Northman

Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic THE NORTHMAN, a Focus Features release. Credit: Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC

Robert Eggers’ art house revenge epic is a bloody good time

By Diana Beechener

In theaters April 22

Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård: Succession) has just been deemed a man by his father (Ethan Hawke: Moon Knight) when his world is shattered. Amleth’s uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang: Locked Down) murders Amleth’s father, claims Amleth’s mother (Nicole Kidman: Being the Ricardos) as his wife, and orders the murder of his only nephew.

         Narrowly escaping his murder, Amleth takes off for parts unknown swearing to the heavens that he will avenge his father, save his mother, and kill his treacherous uncle.

         Over a decade later, Amleth has forgotten these vows. Now a berserker, Amleth’s rage has translated into brutal raids on Slavic-speaking villages where he burns the fields, murders anyone who opposes him, and sells off the healthy survivors as slaves. When he hears the latest enslaved group is destined for Fjölnir, who has lost the kingdom he killed for and is now a farmer in Iceland, Amleth’s thirst for revenge is reignited.

         Can Amleth exact revenge on his uncle? Or is his violent quest a hollow endeavor fueled by misplaced wrath?

         Let’s get this out of the way now—if the plot of The Northman sounds familiar, congratulations, you passed tenth grade English. The Scandinavian legend of Amleth inspired William Shakespeare to write Hamlet. Though the plot may be familiar, director Robert Eggers (The Lighthouse) takes this tale back to its historical origins with grisly, heart-pounding results.

         Eggers has built a reputation for being a stickler for historical accuracy in his movies, and The Northman meticulously recreates 10th-century Viking culture, with all the gore and violence that is usually skimmed over in school classrooms. The culture is vicious, with any sign of weakness reviled, creating a hard-fighting, hard partying people who show no fear and little pity as they increase their territory. Amleth doesn’t fear death, because to die fighting is to earn the ultimate reward in society—a trip to Valhalla. 

         Though the film is brutal (seriously consider your tolerance for gore/stabbing before you buy a ticket because even the sound design in this movie seems intent on making you queasy with juicy axe blows), Eggers manages to make the film beautiful. Collaborating again with cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (The Lighthouse), Eggers crafts some truly astounding sequences and images. One particular tracking shot as Amleth and his berserkers raid a village is breathtaking in its ferocious splendor. The film also plays with the use of hallucinogens in rituals, which produce some trippy, glorious sequences that spin the viewer into a heightened reality.

         While the film offers Eggers’ signature meticulous historic detail, The Northman might be the most straightforward of his films. While The Witch and The Lighthouse delved more into metaphors to explain their histrionics, The Northman is a relatively simple tale of revenge, and the trappings of seeking retribution. Still, even without an extra layer of artifice, The Northman has the bombastic style of The Lighthouse, a film that took big dramatic swings with both performances and visuals.

         Adding some meat to the uncomplicated story are some wonderful, committed performances. Skarsgård, who’s usually a charming leading man type, goes feral for his role as the rage driven Amleth. He’s a snarling bear of a man with hunched shoulders and perpetually clenched muscles. He’s a man who determined his life’s story at age 10 and refuses to deviate from his quest to avenge his father, reclaim his mother’s honor, and kill his uncle. Even when this story is challenged, he remains blinded to any point of view but his own.

         Kidman and Bang are also standouts in The Northman. Kidman, who is coming off an unearned Oscar nod, offers up a savage performance that’s certainly award worthy. She makes the most of her short screentime, tearing into scenes with gusto. Bang takes what could have been a mustache twirling villain role and adds a good deal of pathos and depth.

There’s nothing subtle or subdued about The Northman, everything is over the top, from Skarsgård’s abs to the roars of the men he fights (there’s a naked volcano fight, reader). It’s high drama and operatic entertainment done beautifully. If you like the idea of an art house version of John Wick, this movie is must-see.

Great Action * R * 136 mins.