In the space of a few short years, Robert Eggers has carved out a reputation as one of the most acclaimed and unique filmmakers of his generation. Both 2015 period horror The VVitch and 2019's batshit psychological horror The Lighthouse became instant cult classics upon their release, lauded for their unusual tones and iconic visuals.
Now, Eggers is stepping into fantasy action with The Northman, a violent epic based on a figure from Medieval Scandinavia, and who was a major influence on a Shakespearean classic. With Eggers being given the chance to delve into the rich Norse mythology, expectations were high for a feature the director himself hoped would be seen as "the definitive Viking movie."
If nothing else, The Northman is certainly, and by a distance, the most heavy metal film of 2022 (with no disrespect to Metal Lords, of course). With that in mind, here are some other takeaways from one of 2022's first true cinematic epics.
This is a gritty, immersive take on a Viking epic
While The Northman is visually stunning (more on that later), this isn't a pretty, shiny fantasy epic. For a film that dabbles in fantastical elements, this is still ultimately a gritty, grassroots take on Norse mythology, offering a vision of Viking Scandinavia that takes you so close to those hallowed old soils you can practically taste their dirt and smell the sweat of those walking upon them. Every clash of steel and slice of flesh feels earned. Every set-piece feels alive but lived-in. Sure, there are elements that flirt with the supernatural, but even these are presented in a way that feels tangible rather than something straight out of a comic book (sorry, Thor).
It's also a violent, no-holds barred revenge thriller
Based on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, a story which has influenced everything from Shakespeare's Hamlet to The Lion King, the plot follows a would-be Prince who vows vengeance upon the uncle who murdered his father and stole his birthright from him. Alexander Skarsgård literally throws himself into the lead role, a barely-concealed, primeval fury oozing out of him in every take as he slowly and determinedly slashes and hacks his way to a fiery final showdown. And while it is by no means an endless gorefest, when The Northman hits, it hits hard and nasty. Noses are bitten off. Entrails are spilled. Axes are sunk. Like we said, this isn't a fancy-pants fantasy romp for the family.
It looks absolutely amazing
Although some scenes are evocative of The VVitch's earthy grit, The Northman establishes a visual tone all of its own, once again showcasing the skills of Robert Eggers' cinematographer of choice, Jarin Blaschke. His use of long takes to highlight the scale and splendour of the sets and locations used make for some genuinely breathtaking moments.
Balancing the grounded with the epic is no easy feat, but The Northman manages it: this is a world where a grimy, mud-stomped village and an endless, ethereal, grassy horizon feel equally at home. When the film does rear into more fantastical elements, Blaschke handles that deftly, too, giving those segments an almost feverish, psychedelic feel. Hell, he even makes a dad and son farting into a fire look cool.
The cast are clearly having an absolute blast
Be it Alexander Skarsgård's vengeful protagonist, Anya Taylor Joy's joyfully mysterious Olga, Nicole Kidman's increasingly demented Gudrún or Claes Bang's menacing but nuanced Fjölnir, The Northman is a production brimming with memorable characters, all played by actors who give themselves wholeheartedly to the intensity the film demands. Even the minor roles produce star turns, courtesy of the likes of the magnificent Willem Dafoe (a daft but cunning King's Fool) and the legendary Björk (an unsettling prophet, who manages to steal a scene she's only in for about 90 seconds).
The soundtrack is gorgeous
Featuring a score by electronic composers Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, The Northman sounds every bit as epic as it looks, utilising traditional Nordic wind and string instruments alongside booming drums and swelling orchestral elements. The result is a soundtrack that swirls between stiflingly intense and hauntingly beautiful, complimenting Jarin Blaschke's visuals to create a world that feels both mythical and palpable.
The Northman is, ultimately, another Robert Eggers knockout
While it suffers from a few minor pacing issues in the final third (there's a ten-minute segment essentially sealing Amleth's final destination that feels very rushed - strange, given the hardly stingy two hour and twenty minute runtime), The Northman is unlike any Hollywood epic you'll see this year. It's a gritty, dark but beautiful Norse Gladiator, layered with violence and moments of typical Eggers-esque insanity. More than anything else, it's a film that demands your attention on as big a screen as possible. Plus, it's metal as fuck. What could be better?
The Northman is out this Friday, April 15