REVIEW: ‘The Northman’ makes for an intense and bloody good time

Alexander Skarsgård in the Northman as a Viking. He is standing with weapons in his hand in the middle of a village. He is also bloody.
Director Robert Eggers sets out to make the definitive Viking film in “The Northman,” in his first post-A24 film, which stars Alexander Skarsgård who is on a quest to avenge the death of his father King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

The opening image of “The Northman” is not that of a rampaging Viking but of a rumbling volcano. It’s an apt visual metaphor for what ultimately erupts into a red-hot, blood-soaked revenge saga filled with violence, vengeance and vespertine weapons. 

Taking a cue from Shakespeare himself, “The Northman” illustrates the most metal version of “Hamlet” ever made. The film plays out similar to an ancient poem of primal brutality, its folkloric nature providing an effective framework for the tale of fate and monomaniacal fury that ultimately unfolds. 

Volcanic imagery aside, it is often the characters themselves who are doing the exploding.

Our protagonist is the terrifying and vindictive Viking Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), fittingly described in the film as “a beast cloaked in man-flesh.” When his duplicitous uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) seizes the throne through murderous means, Amleth sets out to avenge the death of his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). 

A single bloody mantra sustains Amleth, its message pounding in his skull akin to a steady heartbeat: “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.” If the plot of “The Northman” had to be summed up in only one line, this would be it. 

Writer and director Robert Eggers goes for the jugular in his third feature. Teeming with terse savagery and testosterone, “The Northman” marks his first departure from beloved indie film studio A24. 

The Focus Features-backed production may have a larger budget than his previous works (2015’s “The Witch” and 2019’s “The Lighthouse”), but make no mistake, Eggers’ fingerprints can still be seen in every frame. His unwavering commitment to period accuracy is commendable, as is his refusal to compromise his blistering cinematic vision for the sake of widespread approval.

The massive $90 million budget does have its downsides, however, especially for a rising auteur who comes from indie beginnings. While “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” thrive in their magnificent minimalism, “The Northman” yields its mighty budget similar to a sword that is far too heavy for it to bear. Each extended sequence of unbridled ferocity, bloodlust and animalistic rage is independently impressive in scope and in scale, but, when strung together, it becomes increasingly clear that much of the film rests on polished visual flair as opposed to profundity. 

Yes, “The Northman” is an epic of, well, epic proportions — both visually and otherwise. This is, after all, a studio film; a blockbuster, by definition, albeit an eccentric one. While it is impossible to criticize his latest cinematic venture for lack of ambition (the final volcanic sword fight sequence is worth the price of admission alone), Eggers’ trademark weirdness seems to get lost in the Hollywood murk and studio interference of it all.

In short, it is a film whose individual parts are stronger than it as a whole. The parts, however, are absolutely riveting. 

A fairly linear revenge plot is elevated by several standout performances. Swedish-born Skarsgård  shines in every bone-crunching battle scene; the self-proclaimed Viking enthusiast proves his passion for the project with every bead of sweat. Anya Taylor-Joy, the breakout star of Eggers’ directorial debut “The Witch,” plays Olga, an enslaved Slavic woman who crosses paths with Amleth in act two. She serves as an intelligent scene partner for Skarsgård, showcasing his character’s humanity in the film’s quieter moments. 

Icelandic force of nature Björk returns to the big screen for the first time since “Dancer in the Dark” (2000), playing yet another blind character who sees the world more clearly than those who surround her. And that’s not to mention the rest of “The Northman’s” star-studded cast (Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe), who, in spite of their minimal screen time, arguably make more of an impression than the main actors, delivering their lines with a wolfish intensity that would cause even the mightiest of Vikings to cower.

The film itself is a visually stunning, auditory odyssey that only Eggers could create. Every slash of a sword, every barbaric yawp, contributes to the cinematic atmosphere, leaving an impression as indelible as a battlescar in the brain.

“The Northman” concludes with the same volcano from the start, its apex angrily belching out lava as Amleth and Fjölnir have their fiery battle. As both man and volcano erupt, the visual spectacle marks the culmination of a journey, a journey that, despite foreseeable, goes out with a bang in true Eggers fashion.

Rating: 4/5