“The Northman” can be wearying, but it remains impressive and intense
Luckily, Eggers’s flair for atmosphere, surreal imagery and visceral impact remain, and they are more than enough to carry the audience through the film’s draggier sections.
Roughly ten minutes into “The Northman,” the newest film from acclaimed horror director Robert Eggers, King Aurvandil War-Raven, portrayed by Ethan Hawke, brings his young son, Amleth — portrayed by Oscar Novak as a child and Alexander Skarsgård as an adult — arrive at a cabin in the middle of the forest, ready to act out a royal ritual which has preceded them for generations. Once they enter the ramshackle building, the boys are greeted by Heimir the Fool, played by Willem Dafoe, and invited to drink a psychedelic liquid concoction with the jester, a tradition that has preceded Amleth for generations.
What follows is a madcap and hallucinatory scene, with Hawke memorably doing his best impression of a dog, barking at Dafoe’s character as he gets down on all fours. This moment brings to mind the absurdist insanity of Eggers’s last directorial outing, “The Lighthouse,” and it is not the last time one will think of his past work while watching this new film.
In its brutal violence, formal rigor and ceaselessly immersive evocation of its setting, “The Northman” also brings to mind “The Witch,” Eggers’s triumphant period horror film that doubled as his directorial debut. Eggers’s newest outing does not quite reach the heights of his last two films — where “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” felt beautifully brisk, this feels occasionally bloated and sluggish — but it does prove, without a single doubt, that the director remains a singular talent to watch.
Shortly after the aforementioned scene, the narrative arc of “The Northman” begins to reveal itself. Amleth, destined to inherit the throne from his distinguished father, faces a personal tragedy when he sees his father suddenly attacked and decapitated by the young boy’s power-hungry uncle, Fjölnir the Brotherless, played by Claes Bang.
Forced to flee his besieged kingdom, Amleth continually chants three sentences that serve as an excellent encapsulation of the rest of the film’s narrative — “I will avenge you, father. I will save you, mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”
Once the film flashes forward several years and finds Amleth as an adult, overcome with bloodthirsty rage and traveling with a band of violent Vikings, the revenge plot kicks into high gear.
Bloody retribution is about all there is to the film’s story, which is more concerned with heightened intensity than the machinations of the plot. There is nothing inherently wrong with this simplicity — “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” were not models of narrative intricacy — but “The Northman,” at a lengthy runtime of 137 minutes, does begin to feel overextended. It is easy to imagine a version of this film, somewhere between 90 and 110 minutes, that sustains its hellish intensity from beginning to end and does not feature any profound lulls in narrative momentum. Unfortunately, this is not it.
Luckily, Eggers’s flair for atmosphere, surreal imagery and visceral impact remain, and they are more than enough to carry the audience through the film’s draggier sections. He stages the movie’s violent set pieces with real flair — while some of the extended tracking shots are a bit too ostentatious, this does not stop many of the film’s action scenes, such as an early siege on a village or a climactic duel alongside a fiery volcano, from being brutally effective.
He also does a remarkable job of conjuring up a feverishly intense and unsettling atmosphere, aided by booming sound design and striking images, such as the reanimated and rotting corpse of a fallen spirit. However, this unyieldingly heightened approach does have its limitations — combined with the thinness of the narrative, the lack of stylistic variation in the film can grow a bit exhausting at its extended runtime.
Regardless of its shortcomings, “The Northman” is a film made with enough skill and filled with enough memorable sights and sounds to warrant a recommendation. While it does not hit the crazed heights of its director’s last two films, it shows that Eggers remains a distinctive and exciting talent.