It’s not easy being the son of a king: first your papa gets killed by his nefarious brother, then the wrongdoer steals your mother and makes her his wife. Soon enough, witches and ghosts whisper words of revenge in your attentive ear. What’s a kid to do, other than to, all together now! … avenge Father – save Mother – kill Fjölnir?
The Northman, Kiss, Robert Eggers’ demake of Hamlet by way of Kiss, Marry, Kill, is an almost comically testosterone-soaked film. Differently from Shakespeare’s Danish prince whose modus operandi was focused on very different verbs, such as waver and doubt and hesitate, Eggers’ Amleth, based on the same original story, is a viking’s viking, and if you’ve watched a trailer you know what that means. After his father’s brutal killing at the hands of Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang – and the man only chooses his moniker after the deed, so King Aurvandil, played by Ethan Hawke, didn’t miss an insultingly obvious spoiler), the traumatised blond moppet rows off into the mists only to return as Alexander Skarsgård, a warrior prince whose six-packs have six-packs.
After escaping the slaughter, Amleth is raised to be a berserker, and this informs his problem-solving skills: he has never met a man whose throat he couldn’t tear out with his bare teeth. And the film revels in this hyper-manliness, as we see the character do what he does oh so well. He snarls, he slaughters, he snatches spears out of mid-air and hurls them back at the one who’s thrown them in his general direction. Depending on what kind of an audience member you are, you’ll either pump your fists and shout whatever’s the Norse equivalent of “Fuck, yeah!”, you roll your eyes at all the performative manliness, or you giggle maniacally to yourself because there is a definite silliness to the violence. And I suspect that’s exactly what Eggers wants: The Northman may not be as darkly comical as his previous film, The Lighthouse, was, but it is so over the top that it borders on camp. Admittedly, bloody, violent camp, but it’s difficult to watch the film with a straight face when Eggers gives us a berserker war dance that is faintly reminiscent of the Peacemaker opening credits.
Then again, silliness lies in the eye of the beholder. Is The Northman simply male wish fulfillment of a certain kind, giving the MRA crowd something to enjoy in between dirges about how masculinity is in crisis? I have to admit that it looks like this at first, and the film’s female characters (witches, adulteresses and questionable mothers, at least at a first glance) don’t immediately suggest that there’s all that much there beyond the testosterone fest. Okay, that’s not quite fair: as the trailer already suggested, The Northman is often excitingly strange, it evokes a world that in many ways is entirely different from ours. It is a world where the rational and the mythical intersect, where gods and magic may or may not exist outside the brain pans of the characters we follow, but it doesn’t matter: in The Northman, the dead can speak, fight and kill, whether they do so in physical form or in your head. In that respect, in its best moments it feels like a more brutal companion piece to David Lowery’s The Green Knight, which likewise evokes an appealingly unfamiliar world whose sense of mystery is the opposite of the overly familiar CGI fests that have dominated multiplexes in recent years.
The Northman is also more nuanced when it comes to masculinity and violence than may be apparent at first. While its depiction of cycles of revenge, its argument that violence begets violence, and its insistence on re-examining both Amleth’s motivations and the villainy of his uncle aren’t entirely novel, they are done well and delivered with a sense of timing that lets the audience in on the secret just as it dawns on our murder prince: maybe his father wasn’t perfect? Maybe his parents’ marriage wasn’t ideal? Maybe Amleth’s brand of MurderDeathKill isn’t inherently better and more honourable than that of Fjölnir? And maybe they’re all villains and all deserving of deaths? When Amleth looks at Gunnar, his younger half-brother, the love child of his mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and his uncle, Skarsgård does a good job of showing that inside this berserker and murderous thug, there is enough intelligence and humanity left to recognise someone not entirely unlike the boy he himself used to be. He understands something about the world he inhabits and the ways in which is it more complex and more ambiguous than was instilled in him by his father and ossified by his thirst for revenge.
What Eggers has excelled at in previous films is creating a world and atmosphere that is not only a fascinating (if forbidding) place to spend two hours in – but this is where The Northman suffers somewhat by frontloading its best parts. By the time we get to the climactic battle to the death in an active volcano, Eggers’ latest has become surprisingly conventional – and I know that I’m saying this about a film that ends with two naked men swinging their swords at each other while lava gushes around them(ooh er, shieldmaiden!). Once The Northman has established its characters, its world and texture, it settles into rather more familiar rhythms. It never becomes generic, it is always visually stunning, and its latter parts are still considerably more idiosyncratic than pretty much every actioner this side of Mad Max: Fury Road – but the film starts at a level of strangeness that sets expectations, and by its midpoint most of what The Northman throws at us is not significantly stranger than, say, Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. Its world is still interesting and unusual, but it is the phantasmagoric, dreamlike qualities of Eggers’ filmmaking that appeal more to me, and those take a back seat in the last third of the film.
Eggers has said in interviews that he considers The Northman the pinnacle of his work, that “now I finally feel like I know how to make a movie!”, which is a strange thing to say after The Witch and The Lighthouse were quite provably movies too, and good movies at that. He definitely brings a unique quality to big-budget action – but frankly, I hope that after this film he scales things back again. I hope he won’t want to go big and loud and macho only, because I find him most interesting when the intimate doesn’t become lost in the fog and noise and blood, the shouts of those dying and those doing the killing. In the end, Eggers has found more that is unique and odd in small, confined places and stories. There may be more riches to be found inside a lighthouse or on a 17th century New England farm than on the Northern landscapes of The Northman. It’s fun and exciting to visit with the Vikings and their bloody ways for an evening, but if you ask me? It’s also good to leave again.