When the trailer dropped for “The Northman” back in December it created a significant amount of buzz online by a small but dedicated group of movie fans.
Director Robert Eggers had already created somewhat of a cult following through his critically acclaimed films such as “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” which spun unique and captivating horror stories around these familiar settings. With “The Northman” rounding out his “The” trilogy of sorts it got many of those same fans buzzed on the promise of a new, refreshing, epic-sized take on the Vikings. It’s understandable given the nature of Hollywood’s hyper homogenized, corporate blockbuster system where sameness is the edict and “safe” is the word that gets greenlit the most.
There is a desire by many filmgoers for something new, something truly unique with a similar level of buzz and anticipation that the juggernaut of the MCU creates with mainstream audiences and a (relatively) big, fancy film about Vikings directed by Eggers promised to do just that for these fans starving for something to break up the monotony.
However, while “The Northman” is indeed quite unique in parts and visually more captivating on it’s $90 million dollar budget than anything the MCU has made over the past two decades, the most damning thing about it is that it’s unfortunately a bit ordinary.
“The Northman” tells the saga of Prince Amleth who witnessed his father’s assassination by his uncle Fjolnir as a boy. Amleth vows his revenge in tribute to his Norse Gods and leads him down a dark path of violence as he grows older. When he discovers Fjolnir has lost his old kingdom and now lives as a farmer with Amleth’s mother in Iceland, the prince secretly travels as a slave alongside a seer named Olga to fufill his dark promise to Odin. He quickly discovers however that the truth of his father, uncle, and mother is more complicated than he had understood and now must face a potential new destiny as he schemes his vengeful quest.
Robert Eggers love for the supernatural and the paganistic beliefs of the old world are on full display here through “The Northman.” There is a rustic, heathenistic vibe throughout the film’s runtime depicting the strange land of the Norway and its people of the era. The tone can feel often primal because of it as we watch Viking berserkers hype themselves up for battle in what ends up being the best scene of the movie early on in its story. The cinematography combined with the film’s savage soundtrack brings it altogether in the best ways many times throughout the story and will keep your eyes glued to the screen throughout.
Skarsgard is the centerpiece of “The Northman” though and he carries the film’s savage saga to its climactic finale. When he’s not literally chewing the scenery, Skarsgard is showing off the character’s brutal energy and unforgiving nature, while also giving time for us to see the more sensitive notes of this prince character. Skarsgard has quietly been one of the more talented actors in Hollywood for a while and giving him a leading role in a high level film such as this helps show-off his unique talents to an audience that may not have seen him otherwise. Anna Taylor-Joy as the Slavic seer/sorceress Olga puts on a great performance as well weaving this spiritual nature into the scripts fabric and its hard to take your eyes off her as she speaks in foreshadow-ess words about destiny and belief with Skarsgard’s Amleth.
But “The Northman” unfortunately doesn’t do anything truly more captivating than this however. Part of what made Eggers’ previous films truly resonate with fans is how unusual and often strange they are. I can’t speak on “The Witch” (yet) but “The Lighthouse” sticks with me largely because it does a lot of things that are either unexpected or just plain weird. There’s no part to “The Lighthouse” that feels ordinary.
Familiar perhaps but not ordinary.
“The Northman” is familiar in that we’re all fairly acquainted with stories about Vikings already but unfortunately ordinary in that very little said in the film really sticks out as profound or unique. We’ve seen revenge stories already, we’ve seen tales about Norse Gods and Vikings already too, and visually, while it is still very pretty to look at, there are few scenes in this film that will make you go “whoa, what the fuck!”
“The Lighthouse” is of course, a VERY different movie compared to “The Northman” but it is more memorable by a considerable margin because of these reasons. Where “The Lighthouse” always pushes things several steps further than anticipated throughout its script, “The Northman” unfortunately feels held back at times. While many scenes are of course, quite violent and bloody it does feel like Eggers doesn’t go as far as maybe he could’ve with more than a few scenes.
It feels to a certain degree like you are being blue-balled as you watch it. Like each scene builds up to something fantastical only to stop just short of becoming truly crazy and imaginative at the last minute.
“The Northman” isn’t so much predictable as it is just another revenge tale that unfortunately has a bit of a Hollywood ending, albeit a very exciting, over-the-top one.
I’ve been told that the film went through some extensive reshoots after getting mixed reactions from test audiences in 2021. I don’t know what the original may have looked like but mixed sounds a lot better than a shrug which is what this film mostly gives me in the end.
This isn’t to say “The Northman” isn’t fun as hell at times or head and shoulders above the average film blockbuster but the bar is set pretty low these days and its feels like that bar may have played a role in kneecapping what could’ve possibly been a more interesting movie.
Ultimately, what I want most out of a movie like this is something that will provoke thought and make think. Give me feelings I didn’t expect in both good and bad ways. This though? This film doesn’t provoke much thought beyond a simple “it’s fine.”
That said, “The Northman” is overall a solid time at the theaters. You’re not likely to be bored watching it and visually it is more often than not stunning and a welcome break from the endless cape flicks that litter all the theater screens these days.
But if you go into this movie expecting a truly unique and mind-bending take on Hollywood Viking mythos, you won’t likely be satisfied by what you get here. “The Northman” is unfortunately, by the standards of what we expect from its director, a tad bit ordinary but I guess that’s par for the course in the grand scheme of things in Hollywood these days…
3.5 out of 5