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The Northman

“I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjolnir.”

Great Odin’s Raven!

In my opinion, a great movie need not be some completely novel thing. I believe The Northman, the latest film from auteur director Robert Eggers, is proof of that.

Here we have a classic revenge epic, unique in that it is largely inspired by ancient Scandinavian culture, myths and sagas, but fairly straightforward aside from that. To drive the point home, this story was Shakespeare’s basis for Hamlet. So anyone familiar with that play or The Lion King ought to find this movie fairly easy to digest.

That said, this still might be a rough sit for some. The Northman is simultaneously a slow-burn and an intense shock to the system. It is full of ultra-violence, bizarre ritualistic chanting, frenzied war cries, screams of anguish, mad laughter, and other loud and insanely dramatic things. Go in expecting that.

We follow Amleth, a happy little Viking prince living the suite life in the year 895. He loves his mother (Nicole Kidman), the queen, and idolizes his father (Ethan Hawke), the king. He’s given a psychedelic rite of passage featuring Willem Dafoe as a half-naked jester/shaman. And then his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) kills his father, takes his mother and upends his world. Cut to years down the line, and it turns out this little prince (Alexander Skarsgard) ain’t so little. He’s HUGE! A brooding warrior driven only by his own despair, hate and lust for revenge. Amleth’s lifelong mission to reclaim his family’s legacy — by slaying evil uncle Fjolnir, of course — leads him on a bit of an odyssey, walking among Viking berserkers and Eastern European slaves, consorting with spirits and valkyries, contending with crossdresser witches and entombed revenants, taking part in ridiculously vicious bloodsports and dreamy woodland orgies. Oh yeah, and at some point he gets a cursed sword that can only be drawn at night or “at the Gates of Hel.”

This movie is nucking futs.

I like that.

With this and his two previous movies, I think Robert Eggers has established himself as being among the best modern filmmakers working today. Each film is a truly mystifying experience. He likes thrusting viewers back into the dark past, where people are at the mercy of the unknown and nature is relentlessly unforgiving, merging very real fears with the fears conjured by our thoughts and actions. The historical periods he covers are thoroughly researched, lending an eerie realism to the archaic dialogue, cultural customs and the overall look of his movies.

While I didn’t find it to be quite as impactful or unique as The VVitch or The Lighthouse, I do think The Northman is a hell of a film experience. It has a classical mythic sensibility while also appealing to modern filmgoer aesthetics. And it does a great job of walking the same line as those films, between a story that’s grounded in raw human reality and one that lingers in a nightmarish realm of fantasy. Anya-Taylor Joy’s character for instance, Olga, is cursed as a witch and has a vaguely ethereal presence about her, yet only appears to be a brave but ordinary young woman who survives by being clever and sharp-witted. This extends to the protagonist as well. Is Amleth just a perpetually lost and angry man killing to satisfy his lust for vengeance or is he a tragic righter of wrongs with mysterious, possibly almighty powers on his side? Ultimately, we are left to judge.

Really, I just find it cool that movies like this are still getting made. It’s a sword-and-sorcery fantasy that takes itself seriously and goes against convention. It’s an action film that has the balls to be daring and thoughtful. It’s a well-known story that they managed to tell in a fresh, unique and exciting way. There's a lot to dig.

Norns and Valkyries:

* As a True Blood fan, it was very amusing to see Alexander Skarsgard portray an ancient Viking warrior prince (or “northman”) seeking to avenge his murdered father again... minus the vampirism. It’s also just been far too long since I’ve seen Skarsgard in a role where he can really go for it, in terms of acting.

* While I enjoyed the performances of Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe and Bjork, none of their characters played as large a role as I imagined they would based on the trailers. That said, they all make the most of their screen-time.

* All three main cast members of Eggers’s first film, The VVitch, appear in this movie: Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Olga of the Birch Forest, whereas Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie play minor characters. Ineson and Dickie also had roles in Game of Thrones and The Green Knight, the latter of which I still intend to review.

* Speaking of Game of Thrones, two of the three actors who portrayed Gregor “The Mountain” Clegane on that show (Ian Whyte and Hafpor Julius Bjornsson) appear in this movie. Considering how tall Skarsgard is and how ripped he got for this movie, they kinda had to go big with some of the enemies he faces.

* I read that part of Robert Eggers’s intention with this movie was to demystify the image of Vikings, which have been obsessively lionized by Nazis and other white supremacists for decades. The Vikings in this film are portrayed as the cultish, bloodthirsty marauders they were, scraping by on a self-destructive culture of petty violence, coldblooded slavery and unfettered egomania. This is exemplified by the hero and villain, both fairly aggro white men who strive to be powerful archetypes that their society reveres, but these pursuits only leave them feeling miserable and cursed. White supremacists, of course, did not care and still got off on it.

* I’d consider this movie to be a bit of a companion piece to Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising. Although, I’m not sure which movie I was more into.

Quotes:

Heimir the Fool: “Always live without fear, for your fate is set and you cannot escape it!”

Amleth: “It’s a nightmare.”
Olga of the Birch Forest: “Then you might wake up.”
Amleth: “It’s a nightmare for them.”

Olga: “Show the shepherd you aren’t a sheep.”
Amleth: “I will show the shepherd his death.”

Amleth: “I AM AMLETH, THE BEAR WOLF, SON OF KING AURVANDIL WAR-RAVEN! AND I. AM. HIS. VENGEANCE!!!”

In case you haven’t guessed, The Northman has my hardy recommendation. Four and a half out of five frozen teardrops.

3 comments:

  1. I didn't know The Northman was Viking Hamlet! (And I've missed Skarsgard, too.) Thanks so much for a fascinating review, Logan.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I went into this movie without knowing much about it nor what to expect. And wow... it's a lot. I enjoyed it, but I had to watch it in three sittings to keep what's left of my soul from running away and hiding under the bed. Good movie.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I have not watched this yet, so I won't read the review until after I have done so. I just want to say thank you for reviewing it so I have a place to comment once it's cheaper to buy on Amazon!

    ReplyDelete

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