April 27, 2022
DIRECTED BY ROBERT EGGERS and cowritten with Sjón, the Icelandic novelist and poet responsible for the Björk lyric “I’m a fountain of blood / in the shape of a girl,” The Northman is set within the stark corners of Viking life and expansion during the tenth century, evoking the era’s sundry pieties and incessant cruelty—a lucid vision of the eternal strangeness of us skin-encased fountains of blood looking to myth for aggrandizement and purpose. The film’s protagonist is a Norse pagan warrior who identifies as a “bear-wolf” and plucks a man’s throat out with his teeth. Despite being a force of chaos, he understands his life in staunch terms of linear fate and religious narrative. Disgusting, unforgettable, the film lives in the contradictions, and codependent marriage, between animalistic, bodily nihilism and lofty myth-making.
We first meet Amleth—the legendary Scandinavian figure from Books III and IV of Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum, on whom Shakespeare based Hamlet—as a preteen prince played by Oscar Novak, well before he metamorphoses into a beefcake berserker. Amleth is still a “puppy,” as he’s referred to by his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman, out-wigging herself with ethereal pre-Raphaelite locks hinting at exaggerated delights to come) when his father King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns from battle, oozing from the liver, and feeling a pressing need to push his guileless son out of childhood. Amleth’s symbolic transformation from pup to wolf begins with a ritual led by Willem Dafoe, relishing a brief role as Heimir, a Viking triple threat (dick-joking jester/adult-diapered shaman/eventual severed head). “You are dogs that wish to become men,” Heimir incants as he feeds the two generations of men a hallucinogenic henbane potion from dog bowls. Hawke, on all fours, discharges a sinewy belch in reply; his noble heir farts.
At the end of Amleth’s rite of passage—reminiscent of the final scene of Eggers’s feature debut The Witch, in which the teenage girl puritan Thomasin is brought into a sylvan coven and, in sinful rapture, soars upward—the young prince ecstatically levitates. While Thomasin’s floating indoctrination felt like liberation, Amleth’s initiation seems a more toxic airborne event: The ritual’s primary purpose is to teach him the imperative of vengeance, how to bestialize himself to become a player in a cycle of perpetual slaughter. If Thomasin’s final gesture was a step firmly into a supernatural devilry, Amleth’s feverish ritual prepares him to be a more earthly terror. With his power limited to bloodletting, it’s no wonder he and his warrior brethren look continuously toward the mythic to elevate their destruction.
Soon after the ritual, the still-innocent Amleth is tonguing falling snow when his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang of The Square, another movie evincing the animalism beneath our overwrought attempts at ordered meaning) kills and beheads Amleth’s father, usurping his kingdom. He then sics his men on the boy and, believing him dead, takes off with Amleth’s flailing mother flung over his shoulder, a mound of eviscerated men and a swarm of weeping women in his wake. Amleth escapes by boat and becomes the hollowed embodiment of his new mantra: I will avenge you father, I will save you mother, I will kill you Fjölnir.
Mere movie seconds though many story years later, Amleth is now Alexander Skarsgård, in a performance that eschews interiority to reflect his character’s eventual proclamation, “My heart knows only revenge.” When we catch up with him, he and his fellow berserkers are raiding the Land of the Rus. Under the id-unleashing spell of mob mentality (and possibly more henbane), Amleth and the other rabid chads gather in a fireside circle-berserk, skinned wolf faces pancaked atop their heads. Their shamanic leader rouses their “bear minds in the bodies of men,” and commands them “break free from [their] flesh,” to “transform their skin.” Pumped, they bear down on a village, and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke traces, in a bulldozing single-camera sequence, the transformation of a small town into a mass grave. The townspeople deemed useful are branded and shackled; women are shared among the victors; children are herded and locked into a building with a thatched roof, where straw and human screams burn to nothing.
Amleth approaches the town’s Seeress (Björk, bleeding from eyeless sockets, and crowned in fashion-forward barley). She accurately accuses him of being a “beast that brings tears,” yet offers him a prophecy that gilds tragedy, cruelty, and meaninglessness in grandeur, and sends him plowing unidirectionally across the land and through bodies toward a predetermined ending by a “burning lake.” A volcano, a CatDog of phallic and yonic symbolism that spews annihilation and rebirth and necessitates sacred explanation, looms in the background of much of the film.
Amleth plots his revenge in accordance with the Seeress’s prophecy, and his superstitious assiduousness determines the remainder of The Northman. Of course he will get to the foreshadowed duel with his uncle. To put it in today’s spiritual terms: He’s manifesting. He brands himself a slave and stows away in a boat to Fjölnir’s lair in Iceland where he now runs a sheep farm, having lost the kingdom he stole from Amleth’s father. Aided by Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, reuniting with Eggers following her harrowing breakout performance as Thomasin in The Witch), a burgeoning sorceress Amleth incidentally helped to enslave, he makes his way across Iceland’s steaming terrain to Fjölnir’s farm, where Amleth’s uncle and mother are raising two sons among an entourage of henchmen, slaves, and sheep. We behold another family waiting to be gutted.
Whether in the Protestant dread of The Witch, the fetid bouillabaisse of New England superstition and Greek mythology in The Lighthouse, or the Norse Paganism, mud, and offal of The Northman, Eggers’s films set period reality and superstition on the same plane. The director self-describes as “for better or worse, Jungian leaning,” and bears the fixations of Joseph Campbell’s cinematic evil twin; his films use myth as a porthole into the mindsets of their eras, and stir the collective unconscious with symbols that feel at once remote and primordially familiar. Just as The Witch contemplated puritanical paranoia actualizing as a self-fulfilling prophecy, The Northman mirrors its characters’ matter-of-fact approaches to the pious pursuit of revenge. Eggers and Blaschke’s durational filming—“shooting long, unbroken scenes, often from a single point of view,” capturing “three or four heavily planned ‘oners’ over and over, and very little else” as the director told the New Yorker—reinforces the emphasis on inevitability, and on the human belief in fate to give shape to the fleshy mess of existence. Even Amleth’s sword seems to refuse to slay his uncle until they find themselves at the prophesied location. “Your fate is set and you cannot escape it,” Dafoe’s shamanic fool tells Amleth early in the film. Why wouldn’t viewers take him, or Eggers, at their word?
The Northman presents a number of queasy provocations. An antidote to Ridley Scott’s 2021 jousting think piece The Last Duel, Eggers’s film refuses judgment or heroization, leaving the onus of what to make of its alien moral code on viewers. The pileup of wasted humanity that forms a backdrop to the symbolically loaded murder at the film’s core elicits the questions: How is the planned slaying of Amleth’s uncle, so calculated and religiously loaded, different than the excess of suffering Amleth himself has inflicted? Why should Amleth’s relationship with Olga matter, when he has shredded countless others’ lovers? (In the contours of so many of the movie’s scenes, tragedy and heartbreak play out anonymously.) Such is the dizzying effect of peering through a contemporary lens into a $90 million world created in active consultation with the living history community, archaeologists, and linguists—and having it catapulted back at you, mangled by a berserker.
Somewhere along the spectrum of incel fantasy and Donna Haraway, the macho zoomorphism The Northman depicts leaves nothing in its wake but a compost of entrails, spraying arteries, and shattered skulls. It offers a picture of our species as animals of meaningless destruction, at once indivisible from and irreconcilable with the folkloric grandiosity and individualist spiritual purpose that make sense of—and further propel—our carnage. In Norse mythology, the best fallen soldiers are guided to Valhalla, where their reward is to continue to fight and die, on repeat, training for a prophesied future battle in which Odin—the Vikings’ most powerful God—would himself be swallowed by a wolf.
— Moze Halperin
The Northman opened in US theaters on April 22.