In 2017, Nicole Kidman was married to Alexander Skarsgård in HBO’s “Big Little Lies.” Five years later, she’s playing his mom in “The Northman.” Just another reminder that in Hollywood, age is just a number…for men to use against women. Anyway, let’s get to why you’re really here: Yes, Willem Dafoe does appear in both a Viking-era dog costume and in his underpants and as a disembodied head. It’s all true.
Writer/director Robert Eggers has made largely inert, widely beloved feature films: “The VVitch” and “The Lighthouse.” “The IVorthman” completes his “The” trilogy. None of the three say anything original or interesting. All are well made. If you liked his first two and have no strong objection to Oedipal urges, strap on your umlaut and buckle up your Björk for a Norse by Norse-west tale of vengeance and volcanos.
As a child, Prince Amleth watches the murder of his daddy, King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), at the hands of his brother, Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang). Fjölnir’s last name is kind of a spoiler but also makes me wonder what my last name would be in the world of “The Northman.” Ryan the Carpal Tunneled? Anyway, itty bitty Amleth presumably does nothing but exercise his core muscles for two decades or so and then seeks revenge for his father and to free his mother, Queen Gudrún the Freudian Nightmare (Kidman).
Amleth gets a few prophecies from Björk, who is presumably not playing herself here, and a character named He-Witch (Ingvar Sigurdsson). He meets up with Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), who maybe does magic? Mostly she just spreads her fingers wide and her eyes wider and chants. Olga and Amleth end up slaves at Fjölnir’s compound, and that’s where the killin’ starts.
Eggers and his cowriter Sjón narratively don’t get much further than the standard “dig two graves” warning about revenge. Maybe there’s a basic intro to the perils of cyclic, inherited toxic masculinity here? Even then, chances are that if you have truck nuts on your vehicle because your dad gave them to you as a Christmas gift, you aren’t going to learn much from a movie in which a woman repels a rapist with her menstrual blood.
“The Northman” is pretty. As jarring as that sentence is after the previous one, that’s exactly what it’s like to watch the film: the grotesque bumps right up against the beautiful. Eggers is clearly most at home with the weird, dark moments that clearly unsettled the people who gave him tens of millions of dollars, thinking they had the next “Braveheart” or “Gladiator” on their hands.
The film is caught somewhere between popular violent historical fiction and whatever the genre is where Ethan Hawke burps in Willem Dafoe’s face. That said, kudos to Eggers for trying to make an epic blockbuster in his style. We should all want to see our generation’s most renowned artists play in the biggest sandbox, with the most toys possible. It’s not our money, and better this than “Oreos: The Movie” or whatever nonsense “intellectual property” adaptation lies in wait for us next.
Grade = B
Other Critical Voices to Consider
David Gonzalez at Reel Talk Inc says “In a year full of blockbusters, few and far between will be as ambitious as Eggers’s ‘The Northman.’”
Kristy Puchko at Mashable says “while I admire the structure of such storytelling, Eggers’s execution feels hollow, capturing the horror but undercutting the heart.”
Catalina Combs of Black Girl Nerds says “This film is a wild good time, even with the dark, violent, and bloody scenes. It’s been a minute since we had something like it. It’s bold, gritty, and just downright awesome.”