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‘The Northman’ Exit Survey

We will watch Robert Eggers’s new movie. We will ask questions about it. We will discuss Björk, knattleikr, and the two naked men fighting at the gates of Hell.

Universal/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

As he previously proved with The Witch and The Lighthouse, Robert Eggers has a gloriously twisted, detail-oriented mind—and now he’s turned it toward ancient Norse culture with his most anticipated film yet, The Northman. Alexander Skarsgard stars as the prince who escapes his uncle’s assassination attempts and vows to return to avenge his father and rescue his mother (Nicole Kidman). But the path of destiny is drenched in blood, brutality, and psychedelic visits from a spirit played by Iceland’s most renowned singer. There is much to discuss, so let us begin …

1. What is your tweet-length review of The Northman?

Cory McConnell: Wouldst thou like to live extremely metal-y?

Isaac Levy-Rubinett: Robert Eggers’s attention to detail and world-building shines through in the best way. It’s not necessarily the deepest movie, but the performances are great and the visuals are mesmerizing.

Andrew Gruttadaro: This movie begins with a drug trip guided by Willem Dafoe and ends with two naked dudes sword-fighting inside a volcano. I had some issues with the plot but I can’t deny that The Northman rips.

Alison Herman: Living in the past seems like it sucked. Better to live in the present, where technology allows us to painstakingly recreate the past with massive budgets, hot movie stars, and bone-rattling sound.

Miles Surrey: Dudes rock.

2. What was the best moment of the film?

Herman: The village raid was worth the abject misery it took to shoot in full 25 separate times. My deep condolences to the 300 extras; your struggles were not in vain!

McConnell: The pillaging raid sequence early on is breathtaking—not only for the staging and technical expertise required to pull it off, but for the little moments in the long, tracking oners. There’s the obvious marvel of the scale and brutalities, but every few seconds you see the horror of what’s actually happening just beyond the action—women and children being dragged away to horrific fates, animals being slaughtered, people drowning in mud; a hundred tiny, heartbreaking moments. For every satisfyingly violent feat of action heroism, there’s an equal amount of emotional terror. The film never lets you delude yourself into the idea that anyone here is a hero. It’s an action sequence only Eggers could pull off in his maniacally detailed way.

Levy-Rubinett: I’m cheating a little bit because it’s more than one moment, but the fantastical scenes—Willem Dafoe’s decapitated head, the Seeress, the hungry night-blade—imbued a real cosmic scale that I loved.

Gruttadaro: GIVE ME A SEQUEL STARRING WILLEM DAFOE’S DEAD TALKING HEAD.

Surrey: Nicole Kidman was cast in this movie for one scene, and boy does she deliver. The reunion with Amleth also makes you appreciate the subtleties of Kidman’s performance at the start of the film, and the quiet disdain the character holds for her first husband.

3. What was your least favorite part of the movie?

Herman: When no one broke the fourth wall to acknowledge the main actor’s other role as a jacked, brooding Northman.

Gruttadaro: I really hated the very sudden “I have a son so now I have to change my decision (which I already just changed) and go fight my uncle” turn Amleth makes on the boat with Olga. If it’s a comment on how stupid men are, it’s kind of funny, but in general it just lacked proper setup.

McConnell: Eggers’s allegiance to the concept of fate in this story is admirable in its adherence to the guiding principles of the culture he’s trying to portray, and also a pretty big bummer of a narrative device. When the central character is told (by Björk!) early on how and where his revenge will play out, there’s not enough left to the imagination to fully lose yourself in the story. Whereas The Witch and The Lighthouse kept you guessing until their breathless final frames, you pretty much know early on how this one’s going to end. While fate and prophecy may well have been how these characters experienced the world in that era, I’d have liked to have seen Eggers take a bit more narrative liberty.

Levy-Rubinett: This is very nitpicky, but I felt like we could have gotten to the farm faster.

Surrey: Ax to my head, I could not tell you the name of a single character in this movie aside from “Yoked Hamlet.”

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4. Who is the MVP of The Northman?

Gruttadaro: Alexander Skarsgard’s abdominal muscles.

McConnell: Let’s not get cute here, it’s Amleth. He went out on that field to play some sportsball and ended up headbutting the biggest guy on the other team to death.

Surrey: The stunning filming locations for The Northman in Ireland and Northern Ireland, which gives the movie a real sense of place. [David Attenborough voice] The best CGI money can buy will never surpass the natural wonders of our planet.

Levy-Rubinett: Is it too boring to say Alexander Skarsgard? He just had a gravity to him; his sheer physicality and presence grounded the whole thing.

Herman: Some actors have a face that knows about texting. Willem Dafoe has a face that knows ancient Viking initiation rituals and looks perfectly natural detached from his body. As a returning member of Robert Eggers’s growing pool of collaborators, Dafoe helps set the tone for the rest of the cast, plumbing the depths of history and taking us along for the ride.


5. Let’s talk about the twist. Walk me through your reaction.

Surrey: Hmm, why does it feel like there’s some sexual tension between this mother and her son and—oh boy, here we go, I hope there are licensed therapists in Valhalla.

Herman: Everyone on the internet had a laugh about the married couple from Big Little Lies reuniting as mother and son. Joke’s on them!

Levy-Rubinett: I had a sense that Amleth’s version of past events may not have been the most accurate, but I was taken aback by Queen Gudrún’s audacity. It was a great move narratively, though, because Kidman’s character—and performance—after the twist was supremely compelling.

McConnell: It felt a bit unearned to me, as the horrors inflicted on Queen Gudrún by Ethan Hawke’s king aren’t really alluded to outside of some brief, tense dialogue early in the first act. Though, in a movie where fate is the predominant guiding narrative thread and events often feel telegraphed because of that, it was nice to have one curveball thrown our way.

Gruttadaro: Nicole Kidman was right: Somehow heartbreak feels good in a place like this.

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6. You’re one of the other enslaved people on the Icelandic farm when Amleth shows up—what’s your take on everything that happens next?

Levy-Rubinett: I think I’d be (rightly) worried he was gonna do something that would get us all killed.

Gruttadaro: The second I see that puzzle made of bodies I’m swimming to Greenland.

Surrey: Honestly, even before Amleth showed up, I’d find it a little ominous that this guy set up his farm so close to an active volcano.

Herman: Anyone who doesn’t take one look at Alexander Skarsgard and wonder how that guy ended up enslaved deserves to have their firstborn son murdered and confront the culprit in the nude at the literal gates of Hell.

McConnell: Oh, I’m not gonna be around to see. Biggest guy in the room starts growling like a bear-wolf on day one and plotting some very obvious nefarious stuff out in the open with his lady friend? I’m gone. Out of there. I will see you later Amleth, I will see you later Fjolnir, I will get murdered by nobody, hopefully.

7. Which modern athlete would dominate knattleikr?

Levy-Rubinett: I was initially thinking of baseball players because of the ball-hitting element. But I’m going with Steven Adams because of the, uh, other elements.

Herman: Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, the Icelandic strongman who played the Mountain on Game of Thrones.

McConnell: I think any hockey enforcer/goon type would be great at this sport. They’ve got the stickhandling aspect down already, they play arguably the most physically punishing modern sport, and things like fighting midgame and taking physical liberties with the opposition are not only part of the deal, but actually expected and encouraged from goon-types. I hate him so much, but I’m taking Tom Wilson.

Surrey: Considering Myles Garrett could have killed Mason Rudolph in 2019, I’m taking him with the first pick in the Knattleikr draft.

Gruttadaro: Here is a video of Jordan Davis—6-foot-6, 340 pounds—running a 4.78-second 40-yard dash:

Let’s just say that prince Gunnar wouldn’t have made it off the knattleikr field alive if Jordan Davis was playing that day.

8. Is The Northman Robert Eggers’s best movie? If not, what is?

Levy-Rubinett: I loved the spectacle of The Northman, but the specificity of The Witch wins the day for me.

Surrey: It’s like picking a favorite child—every movie in Eggers’s Old Timey Human Barbarity™ trilogy has its merits. But as someone partial to meaty blockbusters made by actual auteurs, The Northman is simply irresistible.

So I’ll go: The Northman, The Lighthouse, The Witch.

Gruttadaro: It might be his most impressive display, just in terms of proving what he can do with a bigger budget—but The Witch remains his most complete film.

Herman: The Witch achieves the purest synthesis of historical immersion, captivating lead performance, and dank memes. I, too, would like to live deliciously.

McConnell: The Witch is still his best film—the most immersive of his obsessively crafted visions and the most satisfying exploration of the mythology, landscape, and supernatural fervor that come with them. It’s a movie that has a lot to say about dogma, isolation, familial duty, and temptation. I loved The Northman and all its extremes, but I’m not sure it has much to say other than that Robert Eggers should make several dozen more movies.