Writer-director Robert Eggers' third feature is his best work yet, a delirious, miraculous fever dream about the ecstasy of revenge
Here is a brutally cold and punishing epic that is warmed only by the steam rising from disemboweled intestines – that is until a final showdown, where rivulets of lava lap at the ankles of men battling naked on the base of an active volcano, introduced by a title card labelled “The Gates of Hel.” And if that doesn’t sound punk and putrid enough, you can look at Willem Dafoe barking in a loincloth, Björk as a gnostic seeress, or a gravity-suspended horse galloping into the yoni of a cosmic Valhalla. This is what happens when you give a visionary director like Robert Eggers, obsessed with the myth and mania of folkloric legends, $90 million to make an epic about the ecstasy of revenge. How lucky we are.
Co-written by Eggers and Icelandic poet Sjón, The Northman focuses on Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) and his single-minded pursuit of vengeance. After his scheming Uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murders his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke, a stunning, short-lived performance), the young princeling disappears for twenty-odd years and returns as a hunk of manflesh: pure, terrifying brawn, a body of almost grotesque bulk, in which every sinew has been exercised in the pursuit of cold-blooded revenge. His one mission? To satiate the “freezing river of hate that runs through my veins.” His thirst for vengeance has become unyielding, caked thick into his psyche like the mud under his fingernails.
All you can do is sit and be pummelled by the bloodbath of viscera on display. The kills come thick and fast, each one more inventive and gruesome than the last. Just as Amleth has “become a hailstorm of iron and steel,” Jarin Blaschke’s inky, ingenious cinematography casts the prince as though in stone, grimly set and serenely philosophical underneath his ironclad muscles. The film looks jaw-dropping: genuinely epic in scope while never failing to establish a sense of place among the fast-moving locations.
Eggers and Sjón have taken what is ultimately a straightforward revenge plot and injected it with humour, eccentricity and rip-roaring verve. While other, nobler films often treat vengeance as something poisoned and futile, The Northman asks us: what if revenge was a satisfying, orgasmic triumph of sheer nirvana?
The psychedelic intensity of the filmmaking is matched by the actors Eggers has assembled, with standouts including an unhinged Nicole Kidman as Queen Gudrún, whose (respectfully) unmoving face gives her an almost mad-eyed, plastic intensity, and Anya Taylor-Joy as an ethereal, husky-voiced native “of the Birch forest” who uses Earth magic to help Amleth on his path to revenge (after idyllic love-making in a twilit copse, naturally). And as the titular Northman, Alexander Skarsgård manages to emote through his blankness – no mean feat when we’re asked to view him as a “a hungry corpse returned from the grave,” a machine chiselled from ice.
Eggers makes a spectacle out of masculinity, his wrathful men literally howling, roaring and grunting their emotions while the women make shrewd, clear-headed decisions around them. It is both gnarly and deeply funny; this is no self-serious, chin-stroking analysis of toxic masculinity, but a simulacrum of animals at the zoo, wallowing in filth and fighting to survive among life’s debilitating stench. The bear-pelt headdresses worn by the Vikings during their bone-crunching raids are not mere dressing, but a personal manifesto.
Despite rumours of studio interference, this is a wonderfully weird and miraculous film; a buccaneering fever dream that somehow sees the director one-upping his first two features. Long may his feverishly strange spirit prevail.
The Northman is released in UK cinemas on 15 April.Where to watch