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‘The Northman’ Cuts Its Own Heart Out

The brutality and painstaking nature of Robert Eggers’s third film is admirable and entertaining, but there’s still a sense of the director playing it a little safe

A24/Ringer illustration

To be or not to be a remake of Hamlet: that is the question. The answer is that Robert Eggers’s new period epic The Northman is based on the same 12th century legend that initially inspired William Shakespeare. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Sulking in exile after the murder of his father by an unscrupulous uncle, a Scandanavian prince plots his return and revenge. There will be blood.

All the way back in 1993, Last Action Hero spoofed the idea of Hamlet as blockbuster spectacle—a classic recontextualized in the vulgar language of Hollywood. That was satire; Eggers’s broad, muscular slab of Vikingsploitation earnestly gives it a shot. There’s a bit of Arnold Schwarzenegger here, too: In high-concept terms, The Northman is Hamlet meets Conan the Barbarian, with all the bloody pulp, bulging abs, and hallucinatory grandeur that marriage implies. Instead of a guy monologuing mournfully to a skull in a graveyard, we get crucial dialogue delivered by a severed head. Alas, poor Willem Dafoe—we knew him well.

Dafoe’s decapitated cameo provides The Northman with one of its undeniable highlights. His presence also creates a point of connection to Eggers’s last outing, The Lighthouse, which dealt with big themes of isolation, masculinity, and madness in the guise of a slow-burning, phantasmagorical maritime legend (with Dafoe basically playing the Sea Captain from The Simpsons). Big themes are sort of Eggers’s thing; three films into a career that began with the rich Puritan symbolism and expertly engineered shocks of The Witch—a Nathaniel Hawthorne–style folktale examining dogmatic Christian misogyny and the symbiotic relationship between good and evil—the 38-year-old director continues to weave and stretch the fabric of genre cinema around his ideas like a pro.

Certainly, the nearly $90 million price tag for The Northman suggests a filmmaker who’s currently in fashion. What’s at stake in its release is on one level industrial: the commercial prospects of blockbuster entertainment not derived from expensive IP (unless you consider the Shakespeare Extended Universe to be a rival to Marvel). More importantly, though, the film is an aesthetic reckoning for its creator and his audience. In a moment when any filmmaker with a recognizable style is being hailed as a visionary, it’s worth asking whether Eggers just has decent taste in hand-me-downs, plucking his imagery off the rack from the Kubrick and Tarkovsky wing of the Criterion Collection. It’s also worth asking, even more skeptically, whether The Northman is just the emperor’s new clothes—the pricey, brand-conscious work of a faux-teur exposed by his own naked hubris?

If that sounds harsh, consider that one of The Northman’s stars, Ethan Hawke, used the H-word himself while playing expert witness in a recent New Yorker profile of Eggers. Hawke meant it as a compliment: “I’ve spent my life wondering, ‘Will I ever get to be on a set that feels like Apocalypse Now?,’ he said. “You know, like, somebody’s trying. They have the balls, and the hubris and the arrogance to say, ‘I want to make a masterpiece.’” That unapologetic yearning for greatness—and for tableaus imbued with some vast, Coppola-sized scale—is palpable in The Northman’s early scenes, which center on Hawke’s weary, battle-scarred monarch Aurvandil War-Raven. Returning to his castle after a successful foreign campaign, Hawke heads a military procession whose slow creep through a filthy village and up a foggy mountain allows Eggers to indulge in the kind of dexterous, extended shots that get directors crowned as kings—world-building as a form of showing off.

In period epics, showmanship and scholarship are often intertwined, and Eggers is a stickler for detail. Like David Lowery’s recent Medievalist fantasia The Green Knight, The Northman is trying to apply state-of-the-art craft to old-school material. (If The Green Knight was classical balladry, The Northman plays like its black metal B-side.) Eggers’s biggest interest is in linguistic authenticity: The Witch and The Lighthouse were both written and acted in rigorously old-timey dialects. The Northman, which was cowritten by the Icelandic poet Sjon, has its share of subtitled passages as well, although not as many as its makers might have hoped. Instead, the characters speak in a uniformly Nordic lilt. “Maybe one day I can self-finance my own historical epics like Mel Gibson, but it had to be in English,” Eggers told The Independent. ​​“Given the choices, I think I picked the best option … I hope.”

Invoking Mel Gibson is a bit risky given that The Northman potentially scans as a hymn to Ubermenschian ideals; in 1982, reviewing Conan the Barbarian, Roger Ebert expressed discomfort with its fascist-slash-white-supremacist undertones. “When [James Earl Jones]’s head was sliced off and contemptuously thrown down the flight of stairs by the muscular blond Conan,” he wrote, “I found myself thinking that Leni Riefenstahl could have directed the scene, and that Goebbels might have applauded it.” Eggers has already spoken on the record about his disdain for the co-opting of Nordic iconography by various right-wing movements, but leaving aside the very real potential for social media dustups or accusatory thinkpieces, The Northman doesn’t seem like a particularly political film. If it has a moral, it’s an echo of the old Klingon proverb that revenge is a dish best served cold.

A film with that kind of ice in its veins requires sources of warmth, and Hawke fits the bill. His performance channels some of the same tender, paternal charisma he’s previously displayed for Richard Linklater. There’s a lovely moment when, greeting his 11-year-old son and heir Amleth (Oscar Novak)—guess who the name’s an anagram for—Aurvandil feigns disciplinarian harshness before enfolding the kid in a massive, grunting bearhug. The father-son bonding doesn’t stop there. A couple of scenes later, the pair engage in the Viking equivalent of having a catch: they descend into a cave, pretend to be wolves, and ritualistically trip balls in front of a burning wall of fire.

It’s in sequences like these that Eggers seems to be testing his audience, his abilities, or some combination of both—like he’s walking a tightrope between the ridiculous and the sublime, not caring about whether he falls. “One day, this kingdom will be yours,” intones Hawke sonorously in what is basically a straight-faced paraphrase of this bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail; it’s up to us whether to laugh or not. There was a certain winking humor lurking on the margins of The Witch, with its self-fulfilling parable about a teenager who’s so terrorized by her family’s piety that she chooses to live deliciously instead. The Lighthouse went even further into mythic slapstick, peaking when Robert Pattinson’s Thomas Howard grabs one of the ominous, Hitchcockian crows tormenting his daily toil and splatters it against a wall like a carton of eggs. The vision-quest stuff in The Northman is goofy as hell, but it’s also hard to begrudge Eggers his excess: like Hawke says, the guy is trying. And all the visual bombast helps to offset the predictability of the setup, which finds Aurvandil betrayed and ambushed in a moment of weakness by his younger brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang), who quickly puts a hit out on Amleth, as well, only for the boy to escape by rowboat.

The next time we see our hero, he’s aged and grown into an absolutely ripped Alexander Skarsgard, whose beastmode physicality is deployed even better here than in Tarzan. Skarsgard’s Amleth doesn’t cut just a graphic-novel figure: Now rolling deep with a clan of rampaging berserkers and functioning for his adoptive comrades as the tip of the spear, he’s like a swirl of flesh-and-blood CGI. Eggers’s intention in these re-introductory sequences is to shock us with the severity of the character’s transformation, but we also get a sense of how strategically he’s holding back. While Amleth is happy to maul and pillage—and he’s very, very good at it—he draws the line at killing women and children.

This reticence, juxtaposed against all kinds of vile stuff going on in the background of any given scene, surely has more to do with the filmmaker’s moral compass—and his careful consideration of mainstream audiences—than plausible psychology. A version of The Northman featuring a genuinely ethically ambivalent protagonist would be startling and daring. Instead, we keep getting reminded of Amleth’s essential decency; Skarsgard keeps sublimating his own feral intensity until it’s mostly gone. It’s a thin line between ancient, universal archetype and easy, crowd-pleasing convention, and the sense that The Northman is using one to justify the other chips away significantly at its wild, violent ambition. For all the smashed-in faces and spilled intestines on display, there’s also a feeling that Eggers is playing things safe.

Another, larger flaw is that, having built up a good head of steam, the film shifts into a neutral gear around its midpoint. Now disguised as a slave, Amleth heads to a rural village lorded over by Fjolnir, who’s since downsized his empire yet still treats himself (and his son by Amleth’s mother) as royalty. Amleth is tipped to his uncle’s location by the creepy Scandanavian Seeress (Björk, nicely typecast), who tells him that vengeance is his destiny; once he’s reached his destination, he keeps his head down and bides his time, forming a confessional, conspirational bond with another defiant slave named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). “Your strength breaks men’s bones, but I have the cunning to break their minds,” she tells him before contriving a series of gory, Animal House–style pranks against Fjolnir’s goons to literally put the fear of God into them.

The fact that Amleth wants to torment his uncle and test his faith before straight up cutting him in half with a sacred sword is pretty funny, and in a perverse way, so is the existential curveball thrown late in the film by his mother, Queen Gudrún—a putative damsel in distress. Her Highness is played by Nicole Kidman in a role that seems completely thankless right until it doesn’t, at which point it gives the actress some of her best material in years: a big scene with Skarsgard that functions as a for-your-consideration clip, a Big Little Lies reunion, and a lightning rod for controversy. By contrast, the romantic sequences between Amleth and Olga are weirdly dry despite all the chiseled, exposed flesh between them. With the exception of one daringly full-frontal, R-rated moment of physical comedy, Taylor-Joy’s performance is too subdued. The spooked, uncanny quality that the actress had in The Witch doesn’t come through enough in a role that tries (and fails) to thread a strand of feminist defiance through Eggers’s alpha-male machismo. It’s hard to square Olga’s ultimate role as a vessel for her lover’s royal bloodline with any progressive subversion. In the homestretch, the only thing we’re really meant to feel is a triumphal connection to Amleth’s bloodlust, a far cry from the sophisticated critique at the end of Ridley Scott’s The Last Duel, which looks by comparison like a real film of ideas.

The Last Duel was also moving, as was The Green Knight. The Northman is a lot of things—bruising, rousing, and often entertaining—but it’s not particularly complex. At one point, Amleth gets to ponder his own version of Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” dilemma—a choice between vengeance and being a good family man—before deciding he can have it both ways. It’s less a case of authentic ambivalence than carefully disguised crowd-pleasing. And while the film is filled with declarations of passion, The Northman isn’t very emotional. When Björk’s Seeress tells Amleth “remember for whom your last tear was shed,” it merely calls attention to how wan and dry Eggers’s palette is when he’s not drenching everything in blood. A key plot point involving a character’s heart being cut out and thrown away functions unintentionally as a metaphor for the overall awed, brutalizing sense of detachment on display. Eggers deserves kudos for refusing to compromise, but the fact that he made The Northman entirely on his own terms means he’s also entirely responsible for its shortcomings.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.