Review: The Northman
Cinema is not dead.
If we can live in a world where Robert Eggers is handed close to $100 million to make an authentic Viking revenge epic, there is hope yet for blockbuster filmmaking. While The Northman does tread perhaps overly-familiar ground with its story, the film is largely a triumph. With a fantastic score, high fidelity in capturing authentic period dialogue, costuming, production design, and excellent cinematography, Eggers delivers a thrilling, violent cinematic masterwork.
Historical authenticity has been a hallmark of Eggers’ filmmaking to date. His first two features have been horror-dramas set in specific time periods. The Witch was set in Puritan Massachusetts, seeking to capture the period dialogue and actual religious beliefs at the time about the Devil and sin. Likewise, The Lighthouse authentically depicted late-1800s seaman life on the fringes of America with its dialogue, production design, and memorable sea shanties.
The Northman is a move away from those horror pictures (though there are dashes of it here as well) into overt historical drama. Yet adherence to historical accuracy remains a feature point of the filmmaking. From depicting Norse mythology and rituals to using dashes of true Old Nordic and Old Slavic, and highlighting the culture of Viking society, The Northman feels like a true legend brought to life. It’s a rich film to simply sit and witness, and it feels as though the burning spirit of Norse mythmaking has been brought forward in time.
There is some sense of compromise here. While the film is still clearly an Eggers work, it does feel like a slightly more commercial version of it. We still get to see Eggers’ striking use of color, closeups, and natural lighting to create the kind of unique visuals that have been signatures of his work, but it’s all watered down a bit from The Lighthouse.
The largest flaw is the story. If anyone has seen Hamlet or even The Lion King, the plot will feel very familiar. There are certainly variations, but even so, it progresses mostly as one expects. There’s an attempted twist that felt predictable to me. The film does flirt with doing something interesting with the revenge premise, but ultimately it falls back on what is expected. It makes you wish the film explored a little more deeply the question of whether this revenge is justified, as there was a great morality play this film could have been. Eggers’ aim was likely to capture the tone of the stories of yore, but given the creativity and detail of everything else here, the script feels like it doesn’t quite match.
All the same, this is still an engrossing feature. The cast is committed to the roles, and in no other film will you see Ethan Hawke prowling around on the ground barking and howling like a wolf. It’s this type of fidelity, showing in sharp detail the Viking belief about embodying animal warrior spirits, that gives the movie its visceral, living quality. The film expertly dances around the idea of what is supernatural and what isn’t, what is legend and what is truth, and the nature of how belief drives us. The film feels like an oral tale of historical events, complete with those exaggerations that you can’t quite be sure are true. Ultimately, the film seems to conclude that truth is an altogether subjective experience.
This is not Eggers’ masterpiece, but it is a work to celebrate all the same. The Northman is a compelling epic that demonstrates that auteur and blockbuster approaches to film can make a loving marriage when given the chance. Lasting images will undoubtedly stick with you: an outlined Odin with crows soaring around him, a Valkyrie riding a horse across the starry sky, and two warriors battling in shadow on top of flowing lava. As the excellent score begins pounding, as men chant over the thrumming drums, you can’t help but buy into the myth. And that’s what cinema is all about.