After making a splash with his first 2 critically acclaimed features, The Witch and The Lighthouse, highly talented director Robert Eggers returns with blood-soaked historical revenge thriller The Northman. The film begins in AD 895, as Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak), the heir to the throne of the island of Hrafnsey, is excited by the return of his father, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke). After the celebration in honor of his return, the King expresses to Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) that it is time for Amleth to become a man, and so takes him to participate in a spiritual ceremony. When it is over, the pair exit their hut and Amleth witnesses his father being slain by his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) and his gang. Amleth escapes his uncle’s men and heads out to sea, though one of them reports back they he in fact drowned.
Years later, a now grown-up Amelth (Alexander Skarsgård) is a berserker in a savage band of Vikings in Eastern Europe. After a brutal attack on a Rus village, he encounters a Seeress who reminds him of his oath to avenge his father and rescue his mother. The next day he learns that Fjölnir wound up losing Hrafnsey to Harald of Norway and has been exiled to Iceland where he runs a sheep farm with Gudrún, who has borne him a second son. So, he sneaks his way onto a slave boat headed for Fjölnir’s farm in hopes of slipping his way into it and exacting his plans for revenge.
The movie fairly quickly establishes just how brutal a ride it’s going to be, with perhaps it’s best and most disturbing action sequence arriving in the first hour. The attack on the Rus village is a prime example of just what Eggers is capable of as a filmmaker, from its first perfectly framed shot to the way the camera swoops through the hamlet like a dancer, capturing all the horror that ensues while managing to simultaneously leave the viewer in awe. Sparsely beautiful vistas and imaginative lore-inspired visions only add to the visual feast that is offered up throughout.
The cast is equally excellent, but this is Skarsgård’s show above everyone else’s and he truly becomes Amleth, ably portraying the pain and rage that courses through his veins. The story itself is a fairly rote revenge tale with some sprinklings of Norse mythology added to the mix, but it is told well. Amleth’s romance with Slavic sorceress and fellow slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) is unfortunately underdeveloped though both actors sell it convincingly enough. The movie hints at themes regarding fate vs. free will and the endless suffering begotten by an unceasing thirst for vengeance, but isn’t particularly interested in exploring them very deeply. Viewers won’t mind however as even at over 2 hours long the plot practically races to its inevitable conclusion. The Northman is a bold, visionary revenge epic of a kind we don’t see nearly often enough, with more than enough thrills to keep audiences entertained. ★★★★★
rated r for strong bloody violence, some sexual content, and nudity.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor