I blame Elden Ring. Ever since taking in the latest exercise in sword and sorcery masochism by the folks at From Software, something turned on my brain. Suddenly, I couldn’t get enough of escaping into fantasy worlds, from Elric of Melnibone to Berserk to the Cosmere novels, even digging all the way back to “Two Gun Bob’s” Conan tales. I went so far as to hit eBay to pick up grody 60’s paperbacks of this material. If it’s got a muscular lunkhead ready to cleave some monster in two, I’m there. My inner 5 year old that loved He-Man finally is having his day again.
All that to say, I couldn’t have been more primed to love this latest effort by Robert Eggers, which is a Viking antecedent to these types of tales. Though it would be more intellectually honest to say it’s based on the Scandinavian folktale that directly inspired Hamlet. Much like that routine piece of high school text, The Northman is a story of a father being murdered by a brother, and a son swearing revenge and the rescue of his mother. The son being Amleth (an exceptionally beefy Alexander Skarsgardonce he grows up), the progeny of Viking Warrior King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), who he witnesses being assassinated by his sibling Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang, one of the greatest actors alive, if you didn’t already know). This sends Amleth out into the world alone, eventually to be raised from boyhood amongst berserkers – raping and pillaging their way across the land of Rus. An empty husk of a being.
But a chance encounter with a mysterious Seeress (Bjorkreminds Amleth of his life’s renewed purpose, ie killing the man who killed his father and captured his motherNicole Kidman).
If it sounds fairly routine, it’s because as a piece of storytelling, The Northman’s source text is the definition of elemental; informing these types of revenge narratives for centuries. It’s what Eggers does to add his own personal stamp throughout that keeps the film’s intrigue alive. In addition to some wonderful visual visualishes – I was thrilled every time Amleth was able to trace familial lineage by touching someone’s blood – the film subverts our general expectations regarding the hero’s journey, while a broader sense of myth and fantasy exists just on the margins. Eggers has once again proven that of the class of horror filmmakers that emerged in the late 2010’s (which includes Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, Jennifer Kent, and David Robert Mitchell), he continues to be the most consistent and exciting member of that pack.
Speaking of other directors, it’s a fascinating bit of timing to see The Northman released just one year past The Green Knight dropping. Both are obviously freshened takes on ancient legends, but they also serve as spins on a genre that’s entered a period of stagnation on the big screen, with Epic Fantasy and/or Sword & Sorcery being relegated to the world of television. While The Northman attempts to sell itself as an “epic historical action drama”, and is a bit guarded about whether its otherworldly moments are actually occurring or not, it’s fairly clear where Eggers’ roots lie – with one foot in the history books and the other in the pulps.
It’s actually that guarded nature that keeps me from fully embracing The Northman as superior to his previous triumph, The Lighthouse. While it’s a more accessible film (which is saying something for a movie that features naked men sword fighting in a volcano), ironically it feels like it needed to go just a bit weirder. I could have really gone for Ameth fighting some skeletons or a dragon or something. I jest a bit there, but there’s a stretch in the second act where a bit of drag sets in, and had Eggers spruced that up a bit with some baser thrills, I think this could have surpassed David Lowery’s work from last year.
But this is a relatively minor complaint. To be frank, I don’t know that there’s ever been a movie more made for me, or at least the me of this very specific moment. It’s the kind of film that’s just aching to have its clips scored to Slayer on Youtube. And it continues the trajectory that Skarsgard has been on since The Diary of a Teenage Girlnamely that his strengths as a leading actor continue to grow, turning a relatively two-dimensional character on paper into something consistently arresting.
If this is how we get our big screen Sword & Sorcery revival, with inward seeking filmmakers taking a stab at arguably the most externally pleasurable genre, sign me up.