A Beast Cloaked in Man Flesh: The Northman (2022) - Reviewed


Robert Eggers has had a great run so far directing smaller period pieces, breaking onto the scene with The Witch in 2015, and then following it up with The Lighthouse in 2019. His work tends to be slow, methodical, and at times bizarre, all things that are embraced in lower profile productions. With his newest film, The Northman (2022), Eggers takes a stab at directing an action-packed high budget spectacle. While the influence of having a bigger studio is palpable, The Northman still has Eggers' style all over it, and it makes some intriguing choices with what could have been a banal tale of vengeance.

The Northman is loosely based on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, a figure that also inspired William Shakespeare to write Hamlet. Interestingly, the story in The Northman feels more adjacent to Hamlet than the original tale, albeit more violent and intense. The narrative follows Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a young Viking prince who has his sheltered life turned upside down when his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murders his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawk) and kidnaps his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Amleth runs away and joins a band of brutal mercenaries, but his thirst for revenge consumes him at every moment. 

Tales of vengeance are as old as time, and initially The Northman embraces the familiar tropes of other films in that genre. Amleth has been grievously wronged and it has put his life on a trajectory full of death and barbarity. His threads of fate have been woven into a tragic tapestry, however threads can be severed. On the surface, all of the characters fit neatly into archetypes, but as the story progresses the layers peel back and reveal deeper motivations and intentions. 

Revenge is a messy business, paradoxically ensnaring the one pursuing it in the same type of activities that put them on that path in the first place, perpetuating a vicious circle. Is Amleth any better than his uncle if he also murders people to get his revenge? Eggers explores the ramifications of bloodthirst and the nuance of perception--the idea that one can be the hero in their story, but a villain in someone else's tale. I suspect that some of the story beats and revelations might be divisive due to the moral ambiguity involved, but it elevates what could have been a cliché narrative in lesser hands.

Visually, The Northman is breathtaking combining beautiful vistas with fantastical imagery. The film embraces the idea of old magic, seamlessly incorporating it into a grounded, organic reality. Thematically, Eggers is interested in the thin line separating man and beast, and the situations that cause men to shed the trappings of civilized behavior to regress into an animalistic state, stripped down to their primal id impulses. There is an exploration of masculinity, in a society that prizes it above all else, even when it is detrimental. While the women take a back seat for most of the film, both Nicole Kidman and Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Olga, Amleth's love interest, have their own revelations that keep them from being two-dimensional characters.

It is invigorating to see a studio-backed piece that is allowed to be uncompromisingly grim and savage. Skarsgård is an absolute beast in this role, jacked up and snarling, always marching forward with murder in his eyes and blood on his hands. The audience is simultaneously drawn to him and repelled by his actions, dragged along on his journey of slaughter. Eggers has created a compelling story, that will inspire both awe and revulsion in equal measure, in which man and beast are one and the same.

--Michelle Kisner