The Northman begins in the ninth century, and it looks it. Drawing on Scandinavian legend so distant that it’s thought to have served as inspiration for William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the film follows Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård, and briefly, as a boy, Oscar Novak), a prince whose father (Ethan Hawke) is murdered. The perpetrator of regicide is Fjölnir (Claes Bang), the king’s brother, who claims the throne and the queen (Nicole Kidman). Amleth devotes himself to revenge, taking up with Vikings to build his muscle mass and bloodlust equally. Years later, he poses as a slave to get close to Fjölnir, now deposed, and his family. Bloody mayhem ensues.
Director Robert Eggers has his zone. Like his two preceding features, The Witch and The Lighthouse, The Northman grinds away at the misery found in centuries past. It’s no wistful fantasy of elegant castles and fussy costumes. The surroundings are grim and dank, the fetid stench of rot practically wafting off the screen. Humans are ruthlessly cruel to one another, constantly striving for positional authority based on feral instinct rather than Game of Thrones calculation. Eggers revels in it. Collaborating with Icelandic writer performer Sjón on the screenplay, Eggers renders the story with a brutal commitment to depicting the era authentically, albeit often shot with a warped sense of reality that recalls David Lynch in his slightly more grounded mode.
The film is finally more admirable for Eggers commitment to his vision than the effectiveness of its storytelling craft. It’s all choices and no soul. The film can feel like a procession of rib-nudge jolts with its romping gore and practiced squalor. There actors bring an eagerness to the wild-eyed weirdness that can knock the film off-balance even when the emoting is enjoyable to watch. It’s telling that Eggers returners Anya Taylor-Joy and Willem Dafoe fare best in the environment, but extra credit to Björk (a regular collaborator with Sjón) for giving it her all as a spooky, cryptic hut-witch, arguably the movie role she was born to play.
In a dispiriting time when it can feel like so much U.S. film output is product first and cinema a distant second, The Northman has value for the weight of its ferocious daring. It falters as much as it succeeds, but by Allfather, it at least swings its sword with intent.