THE NORTHMAN is a magnificent historical epic hampered by Revenge movie tropes

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Robert Eggers has carved out a niche for himself by making visually arresting and painstakingly researched historical films with supernatural and folkloric overtones. It’s hyper specific and gave us two of the best films of the genre of the last decade, The witch from 2015 and Lighthouse from 2019. Both films are deeply disturbing affairs exploring several universal themes in the weirdest ways possible. His last movie, The man from the north, is by far its least weird. This, therefore, also makes it my favorite. It’s not a bad movie at all, it just feels like a lot of the special Eggers sauce has been watered down, even if the brutality has been increased.

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The man from the northThe attention to period detail is perhaps the most impressive of Eggers’ entire career. The scope of something like this is enormous, using Iceland’s vast, icy landscape to explore several different cultures fused together by plunder and slavery. Norse, Celtic, Russian and Pictish characters all take over the screen at once and each feels different in their own way. I have never doubted the veracity of an element on the screen. It really is like a journey through history.

What doesn’t quite have the same feeling of immersion is the story. A young Norse prince named Amleth sees his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), murdered at the hands of his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), is therefore considered the new queen of Fjölnir. Although Amleth is himself wanted for death, he escapes in a boat, vowing to return one day to avenge his father, save his mother, and kill his uncle.

A sword pointed at King Aurvandill's face in The Northman
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Years later, Amleth is a Bear-Wolf Viking raider, now portrayed as Alexander Skarsgård, the beefiest Skarsgård. After ransacking a Russian village, Amleth overhears the story of King Fjölnir losing his kingdom. He is little more than a town leader in Iceland, but Amleth’s hatred and desire for revenge is not dead. Amleth disguises himself as a slave and joins a caravan heading for the town of Fjölnir. Along with a cunning young Russian girl named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), Amleth plots the slow destruction of her uncle and everything he holds dear. But, as is always the question, will revenge really satisfy his bloodlust?

It is one of the oldest stories in the world. I don’t mean just because this movie is set in the late ninth century AD; you’ve seen this story before. It is Conan the Barbarianhis Hamlet, that’s at least 50% of all spaghetti westerns. The story of revenge cannot exist without effectively transforming the avenger into a beast who must choose whether to succumb to his hatred or follow a more forgiving path. The body count increases as they decide, of course.

Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) are driven by chains through the Icelandic wilderness in The Northman.
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It’s definitely not like The man from the north is totally without the Eggers branded keys. The moments where the film really shines are when the narrative brings in elements of folklore and superstition. When Amleth begins his nightly raids on his uncle’s farm, we get a bit of Norse magic and mysticism. Fjölnir’s eldest son, Thórir (Gustav Lindt), believes it to be the heretical magic of Christian slaves they had acquired from Ireland. Olga uses the “Earth magic” she taught Rus. We see Norse ritual sacrifices to the god Freyja. It’s a fascinating mix of different influences.

While the movie definitely has its fair share of cool elements like that – Björk as the eyeless seer is standout, and Willem Dafoe as the weird jester-meets-mystic is another – too often we get the impression that they are at the mercy of the narrative, which is as routine and pedestrian as possible. I like a good revenge story, don’t get me wrong, but The man from the north feels trapped rather than using it to explore other more important themes.

Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) screams with his band of Viking raiders in The Northman.
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Both The witch and Lighthouse explore some fascinating avenues of toxic masculinity. They show us men who are in various ways powerless and unable to effect change in their own lives. Which, of course, leaves them open to the otherworldly forces that inhabit the forest or sea around them. Here, the toxic masculinity feels both horribly destructive and unchecked. Adult Amleth is a ball of rage from his first appearance to his last, literally roaring or howling like the animals he imitates. His actions therefore lead other men—notably, but not limited to, Fjölnir—to respond in kind. It makes the men here seem helpless in their own way, but we never see the opposite. Brutality begets brutality and, justified or not, brutality is all there will be.

The cast is excellent, the cinematography from regular Eggers collaborator Jarin Blaschke is gorgeous, and everything about the period feels pitch-perfect and rich. And yet, I can’t help but think of how much more David Lowery seemed to be doing with his Arthurian riff, The green knight, Last year. It’s also kind of a hero’s journey, about a man with an uncertain future trying to follow or alter his fate. But it’s so much weirder, so much more interesting in so many ways, and seems to use its mystical and mythological elements to a higher level of effect.

The man from the north is a beautiful, textured depiction of its place and time, with so much to commend on both sides of the camera. I just wish he found something deeper to show us, a more nuanced story to tell than what we get. And it’s not like there aren’t a lot of opportunities. A few moments in the story made me say “Oh wow, that’s interesting!” But they ultimately only briefly broke the rhythm of typical genre conventions. The flow of the revenge film could not be contained for long.

If you want to see a visual interpretation of a Viking epic at its peak, I recommend you see The man from the north wherever has the best sound and projection near you. It’s a beautiful movie. However, don’t expect the unpredictability of The witch or Lighthouseto which The man from the north just can’t hold a candle or a torch.

3 out of 5

Kyle Anderson is the editor of Nerdist. You can find his film and TV reviews here. Follow him on Twitter!

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