Wednesday, April 27, 2022


"Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death." - Beowulf

There’s something tough and believable and ancient in writer-director Robert Eggers’ latest film, the red-blooded, thunderously entertaining The Northman. It’s set in the harsh, brutal world of Vikings, and on the road to revenge, which is harsher and more brutal still. Sure, it has shaman and visions and a warrior who catches a spear mid-flight and tosses it back at his enemy. But its potential Conan appeals are situated in a great sense of reality. If it weren’t such a gleaming work of modern craftsmanship, and harkening back to the great epics of Hollywood’s golden age with its pomp and circumstance in massive landscapes as backdrops to human dramas, one could almost imagine the camera had been plunked down in the year 900. As such, it continues Eggers’ anthropological commitment to historical verisimilitude in vivid genre trappings. Here the thrones and the boats, the swords and the helmets, all have the look of authenticity, and real care given to photographing them in all their textures and design. And Eggers co-wrote with Icelandic author Sjón, together crafting a narrative that plays fair with the historical record even as it’s a work of impressively imagined synthesis. We notice the attention to detail, matter-of-factly presented rigor, and that’s how Eggers grounds the fantastical in a material believability of the past. The film has the weight of a real time and place, and uses it as a stage for its bloody spectacle as a warrior prince (Alexander Skarsgård) is betrayed by a villainous uncle (Claes Bang). The young man flees into exile and slavery from which he vows to avenge his father (Ethan Hawke) and free his mother (Nicole Kidman). Yes, indeed, the film asks: what if Beowulf was also Hamlet? (The prince even shares a name, Amleth, with one whose rotten Denmark  is said to have inspired the Bard.) Turns out the answer is awfully satisfying.

There’s a thrilling sturdiness to the film’s inspirations, and not simply the look and tone of the picture that unfurls historicity. Although Eggers’ films have thus far been well-researched period pieces, they just as importantly draw on a literary tradition from the times. Because they play tonally and structurally like stories from the period in which he’s setting his films, they feel all the more real. It’s not that they’re true stories of a bygone time; it’s that they feel like stories of that bygone time. His debut The Witch drew its woodsy colonial folklore fears from contemporaneous journals. He followed that with The Lighthouse, a two-man oddity which matched its turn-of-the-20th century setting by being a boxy black-and-white modernist freakout in squared-off silent-horror aesthetics. It’s only natural, then, that The Northman is built from the bones of Nordic legends and Old English epic poetry. Its dialogue—spoken in gruff barks and silky growls by a game cast—is built on the sturdy syllabic construction of Seamus Heaney’s translations. Its sense of lineage and honor is all knotty myth. Its structure, though, is pure five-act Shakespearean. It builds beautifully and ponderously, each new act slotting in the next step on the road to inevitable conflagration. It’s at once familiar and strange; like the past, they do things differently there, even if we can recognize the composite materials. It earns our investment by believing fully its own, in confident steady style that rumbles like thunder and proceeds at a deliberate pace.  

Along the way, Eggers conjures battle sequences and murky magic in striking measures. Action plays out in elegant lateral tracking shots through frenzy and violence. An enchantment in the world sneaks in through vividly imagined ambiguities—a prophesying, pale, blind Seeress (Björk); a fortune-telling skull; a woozy psychedelics-induced ritual, and a vision of Valhalla. And the throughline of revenge carries us through a long, bruising and bloody picture set against staggering natural beauty of fjords and fields, cliffs and volcano. The scenes unfold with a heaviness, a bold booming in the bass as details accumulate and our hero gets closer to his goal. The enormous vistas fill up their foregrounds with ominous plotting and intimate vengeance. The project thrillingly splits the difference between folk tale and folk horror, epic poem—brusk kennings and brute strength thematic construction—and family tragedy. It’s a film about blood and bloodlines, about passing on the honor of one’s names and gains, and maintaining in the face of so much wild danger. Not uncritical of the violent impulses, by the end, with its moonlit massacres, lava-dodging swordfights, and love with a beautiful young woman (Anya Taylor-Joy) who just might represent a better future, it clearly inhabits the intoxication and futility of revenge—the nobility and gnarliness of Viking life, and the wonder that anyone survived to tell the tale.

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