MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD for The Northman. Consider yourself warned.
What do you think of when you hear the word “Viking?” Minnesota’s football team? The History Channel series? Or do you think of Marvel’s Thor, looking all surfer-cool with his flowy, blond locks and red cape, wielding that crazy, flying hammer (although actually now it’s a giant ax according to the MCU, but I digress)? Or maybe you’re old like me and remember the Hägar the Horrible comic strip?
Well, whatever comes to mind, it’s safe to say it’s pretty far from accurate. But if you’re looking for a more realistic portrayal of the Viking age, indie favorite Robert Eggers has taken on the massive, daunting task of creating the ultimate Viking epic. And while some reviews and initial lackluster box office might suggest otherwise, I think he’s succeeded.
Let’s get one thing straight from the jump: the story isn’t complicated. It’s a revenge tale. In fact, it’s the revenge tale – basically, it’s Hamlet (though it also takes cues from other flicks like Conan The Barbarian and Gladiator). Shakespeare’s story comes from the same legend/historical record Eggers and writer Sjón used. Shakespeare even used the same name for his main character, just with the letters rearranged (Hamlet = Amleth). But where The Bard’s approach was much more about the navel-gazing and political intrigue, Eggers throws you headlong into the deep end of the Viking world, where you’d better have your muck boots and waterproof poncho ready for all the mud and blood.
The story begins with King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) returning home from some untold war, wounded and weary. As glad as he is to be home and see his beautiful queen, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), Aurvandil is happiest to see his young son Amleth (Oscar Novak). Soon after his return, he takes Amleth to their local shaman, Heimir (Willem Dafoe), for a coming-of-age ceremony. Together they all drink some funky stuff and trip out, embarking on a vision quest-type thing where they all spiritually “transform” into wolves.
But it’s right after this that tragedy strikes, as Aurvandil’s brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) and a group of his followers attack the village. Young Amleth watches from his hiding spot as Fjölnir brutally murders his father and then sends the rest of his guys to search for Amleth. One of them finds him, but the clever youngster has a knife on him and slices the guy’s nose clean off. Ouch. As Amleth escapes from the village, he sees Fjölnir carrying his screaming mother away. Helpless to do anything but run, he finds a boat and rows away as fast as possible, making an oath: “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”
Fast forward 15 or so years where we meet adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), all grown up and bulked up, still repeating that same oath to himself as he rows on one of those famous Viking longships toward “The Land of Rus” (the area making up Russia, Belarus and Ukraine). Once they land, the Viking raiders prepare for battle by dancing and psyching themselves into a murderous frenzy, wearing the skins of the bears and wolves they’re mentally “shapeshifting” into.
By the time they attack the village, the guys have become full-on berserkers, totally amped, naked and deadly. We get an eyeful of that harsh reality as Amleth moves through all the slaughtering, raping and pillaging with scary focus. We see women and children herded into one of the huts and locked in, and as the raiders set it on fire, Amleth walks right by. All in a day’s work.
Around this point, Amleth finds the dwelling of a terrifyingly awesome-looking seeress (Björk) – a Fate-like being called a Norn – who knows him and his quest for revenge. She foretells a confrontation at the flaming Gates of Hel (yes, that’s hell with one L), saying Amleth will have to choose between his family and vanquishing his enemy – he can’t have both.
Then we see another aspect of that harsh reality: the Vikings made their living by looting and dealing in the slave trade. The raiders take the survivors of the Rus village and divide them up, sending them on different ships to different markets. Amleth overhears talk about Fjölnir – that he’s long since lost the kingdom he stole from Aurvandil and now lives as a farmer/shepherd/village chieftain somewhere in Iceland. Seizing the opportunity to fulfill his destiny, Amleth chops off his long locks and brands himself as a slave. You’d think that the raiders would still recognize him as one of their own despite the haircut, but I guess they figured that and actually wearing clothes would be enough of a disguise.
As they sail toward their new home, Amleth is intrigued by a Rus captive named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), watching and listening to her as she comforts another girl, speaking in a strange language. It turns out she’s sort of a witch in her own right, a Wiccan-type who worships the “Earth goddess” and makes her own funky potions. As they both toil away in Fjölnir’s household, she and Amleth form a close bond of mutual attraction and desire to exact their revenge on their captor.
Amleth visits another seer, known only as He-Witch (Ingvar Sigurðsson), who just happens to have Willem Dafoe’s mummified head sitting next to him. He tosses hair from the skull into a fire to see the future, telling Amleth about a magic sword that will make him unbeatable. The only thing, though – it can only be used at night. Why? Other than the fact that it’s called the “Night Blade,” I have no idea. They never say.
So Amleth manages to escape his quarters at night and go looking for the sword. He finds the previous owner in a cave, a mummified king still holding the sword. Amleth actually has to spiritually “fight” him for it, but once he wins, Amleth uses the Night Blade to start exacting his revenge, killing off Fjölnir’s guys one at a time – including the dude whose nose he cut off way back when.
Fjölnir goes nuts trying to figure out who – or what – is doing the killing. Theories bounce around like it’s a pack of wolves or maybe even the Christian god, whom nobody quite gets. They even try a human sacrifice to appease whatever angry god is punishing them. But it doesn’t work – in fact, things get even worse for Fjölnir when Amleth kills his oldest son, the Littlefinger-esque Thórir.
After his death, Amleth sees the pain it causes Fjölnir and thinks perhaps this is the revenge he sought – Fjölnir suffering for the rest of his life. Amleth realizes that he has a decent chance at happiness with Olga if he escapes with her, as she plans to do. He confides in her that he’s never been close with anyone but his late father, that it’s a new feeling for him – one that he wants to hold onto.
But Amleth still has one more thing he needs to do: save his mother. But when Amleth sneaks into her tent and reveals his identity, her Lady Macbeth-ish reaction isn’t what he expects. Gudrún tells him that it’s Fjölnir she’s always loved – not Aurvandil. In her words, Amleth’s father merely “tolerated” her because she bore him a son. She tells Amleth that his dad was basically a lech, and it was she who begged Fjölnir to kill him. So Amleth isn’t the long-lost son that she loves – she only loves the son she had with Fjölnir, young Gunnar (Elliott Rose). With that crushing revelation, Amleth still fulfills his vow, after a fashion – he “saves” Gudrún by killing her and Gunnar.
Amleth then escapes with Olga, the two bound for the Orkney Islands (near Scotland), where Amleth’s relatives live. He kisses a wound on her neck, tasting her blood – and when he does, he has a vision of the Tree of Life, known as Yggdrasil. He sees a young boy and a girl sprouting from the tree – his children. Olga happily confirms that she’s pregnant, saying she wanted to wait to tell him until they were safely away.
But it’s then that Amleth realizes what the seeress meant when she said he’d have to choose between protecting his blood or exacting his revenge. As long as Fjölnir’s still alive, Amleth’s new family will never be truly safe. So the only way to protect them is to kill him. He tells the ship’s captain (special appearance by The Witch’s Ralph Ineson) to take Olga on to Orkney and bring her to his kin. Then, as Olga screams her heartbreaking protests, Amleth dives back into the water and swims back to shore.
So how does it all end? Well, pretty much as foretold – Amleth and Fjölnir get naked and berserk-y and brawl it out near an erupting volcano. And both men meet the end that men of that age saw as the only truly worthy death – to die in battle. And as Amleth leaves the mortal world, a fierce and fearsome Valkyrie (personified by the stunning Ineta Sliuzaite, complete with fabulous dental bling) carries him off to Valhalla.
I’ve read quite a few reviews and articles about this flick, and a popular opinion seems to be that while The Northman is cool-looking and Game of Thrones-ishly violent, it’s an overall disappointment. For some reason, folks seem to think that director Robert Eggers has to match the same level of weirdness and obscurity featured in his other two flicks, The Witch and especially The Lighthouse, in order to maintain his status as an indie darling. And so, by making this $90 million feature with a major studio (Focus Features is part of Universal), he’s basically sold out.
I don’t agree with that. I mean sure, a revenge tale is probably the oldest plotline in the book. And The Northman’s version plays out without making any significant changes to the tale, so there’s nothing new about it. But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I also don’t think it was the point. The point was to use the old Nordic tale as a way to immerse the viewer in the harsh, bloody, frightening, mystical world the way it was over a thousand years ago.
And what I find most fascinating is how, even though it’s touted as a Viking epic, Eggers shows off the many different cultures that existed at the time. The most successful aspect of the flick is how all these different belief systems, religions, superstitions and traditions all come together into this crazy mix that sometimes merges, sometimes coexists – but oftentimes clashes and fights each other for dominance. And how that hasn’t really changed in the millennia since.
So while I wouldn’t say that The Northman is Eggers’ best flick – I’m still partial to The Witch – I appreciate his attempt to make something less complicated character-wise, something let’s say, more studio-friendly. And I think there’s a decent enough balance between Eggers’ brand of crazy-cool, unsettling visual storytelling (seriously, I think the image of the Valkyrie is one of the best shots ever filmed) and a more Hollywood, big-budget epic that definitely makes it worth watching.
Directed by: Robert Eggers
Written by: Sjón, Robert Eggers
Release Date: April 22, 2022
Run Time: 2 hr, 16 min
Distributor: Focus Features