The Northman Review: Robert Eggers’ Cinematic Acid Trip

After the wonderful weirdness of The VVitch and The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers now subverts to much more traditional filmmaking.

The Northman Alexander Skarsgård


After the wonderful weirdness of The VVitch and The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers now turns to much more traditional filmmaking with a piece that’s compelling, but overly familiar.

Robert Eggers is quickly establishing himself as the new auteur-to-be of New Hollywood. He’s a part of a new generation of directors who are seemingly driven by excessive violence, trauma and art. Ari Aster, Jordan Peele and Julia Ducournau have all used genre films to explore much more difficult topics and the results have been as frightening as they are unusual. 

Eggers now sails onto more familiar waters with The Northman, his most accessible film to date, but still a tough watch by all means. Alexander Skarsgård plays Amleth, whose father has been slain by his own brother when Amleth was only a boy, a horrific act which he witnessed before escaping. Amleth now vows to avenge his father’s death and to save his mother, who was taken by Amleth’s uncle. 

What follows is a surprisingly familiar story of revenge. Eggers’ style is pleasingly theatrical and the scale and scope of the story is epic, as is the storytelling, but The Northman feels like an anomaly in Eggers’ body of work. Despite trippy imagery and almost dream-like visuals, The Northman is ultimately a story we’ve seen before, countless times.

The Northman Alexander Skarsgård rowing

If The VVitch was enticing and The Lighthouse was weird, The Northman is undeniably epic. It’s a ferocious film, one that attacks your senses from all directions, but Eggers is also in total control of all the elements. The sound design is immersive, the score seducing and visually, The Northman is as handsome as they come but I needed it to go further and be weirder. 

Everything in The Northman is impressive, but its relentless violence and lack of warmth might also prove alienating for some. Eggers seems awfully interested in the human body in all its ugliness; burping and farting are signs of manhood and the human body is constantly violated and abused. It’s almost like, for Eggers, humanity equals suffering. It makes for an uncomfortable and challenging watch, but a rewarding one too. 

Eggers’ gaze forces us to be the witness of almost unimaginable horrors, but these are so well realised, it’s hard not to be in total awe of the man’s abilities as a filmmaker. The brutality of The Northman is always necessary; the camera never lingers on the gore but the effects of the violence are deeply felt.  

Skarsgård gives the sort of performance that makes a man’s career in Hollywood. He joins Ryan Gosling in Drive and Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain playing silent, strong, violent men who feel everything, but speak nothing of their pain. Skarsgård’s performance is feral and animalistic, primal and the kind that will be remembered. 

The Northman Anya Taylor-Joy Alexander Skarsgard

Equally impressive are Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicole Kidman. For Eggers, it seems that women and womanhood is something mystical, almost mythical but also sacred. Both women give the illusion of an inner life for their characters that doesn’t necessarily seem to be present in the script, but this is exactly why you hire such talented people, to help hide your weaknesses. 

The Northman is epic, hypnotising and compelling. It’s a hair short of a masterpiece, it’s just a little too traditional and overstays its welcome by a smidge. While everything in The Northman feels vital and important, individual scenes tip into self-indulgence as Eggers’ camera lingers on Skarsgård’s muddied, blood-stained face a tad too long. Nevertheless, this is major work from one of the most interesting cinematic voices currently working.

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