The Northman is blessed with The Witch director Robert Eggers’ singular vision and visual flair but this tragic revenge story lacks the emotional impact to become the Scandinavian masterpiece that it wants to be.
Somewhere in the primordial terrain of 10th century Iceland Viking King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) returns. His family and his people eagerly welcome him. Arriving from battle with grave wounds, the king has decided to set his son on a path to become a ruler of the tribe in an initiation ceremony.
After exiting the trippy ritual the father and son are attacked. Fjölnir (Claes Bang) kills his half-brother and takes the throne. The prince escapes to the sea on a dingy vowing, “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”
The mantra is the entire plot of the movie. Amleth dutifully avenges his father while The Northman delivers heaps of sadistic gore mixed with Scandinavian lore. Heads get hacked off and organs spill out. There’s a screaming valkyrie and a mythical sword.
The technical aspects are stellar. The fight scenes are well-choreographed, with a grown-up Amleth (played by Alexander Skarsgard) poised like a hunched bear ready to strike anytime. The battle scenes are visceral, shot in a long fluid takes. The backdrop turns the alien-looking terrain of Iceland into an ominous landscape. There are unmistakably Eggers-styled macabre compositions.
The Northman tries hard to impress upon its audience that they’re watching an epic, detailed with such history that before Fjölnir rids himself of Amleth he undergoes a ritual first, where a random slave is casually stabbed in the background while he’s sprayed with a horse’s blood.
In reality, however, The Northman is just a crass sword-and-sandal movie built around a simplistic revenge story.
After a long journey and much hardship, he gets close to Fjölnir. But without any additional character development, The Northman becomes the story of a man on a single-minded quest for vengeance, killing an exiled ruler, his family, and his men who are just living their Viking lives.
There is a twist here, which you may recognize from Hamlet because the legend of Amleth inspired Shakespeare’s play, but it registers as nothing more than a trope even with Nicole Kidman’s acting performance. The cast is great, but they’re underused because action and cinematography take precedence over everything else.
The Northman is a Vikesploitation B-movie.
The Northman is an immersive Viking Age-themed action movie but lacks the emotional depth to become the Scandinavian epic it wants to be.