Savage, cold-hearted Viking epic packs a bloody punch
Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Claes Bang and Willem Dafoe
Directed by Robert Eggers
How to Watch: In theaters Friday, April 22, 2022
The Vikings are coming! The Vikings are coming!
That phrase doesn’t mean much today, except perhaps for Minnesota NFL fans getting revved up for away games.
But some 1,200 years ago, these fearsome Scandinavian seafarers ruled the North Atlantic, raiding, pirating and plundering their way across Europe and beyond. Now they’re laying siege to multiplexes in this galloping, grotesquely immersive epic about one Viking’s merciless, bloodthirsty quest for retribution and revenge.
Swedish-born Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth, who sets out as a boy on his brutal life’s journey after witnessing the murder of his father, the warrior King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), by the king’s bastard brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Narrowly escaping with his own head still attached, the little prince watches, terrified, as Fjölnir carts off his mother, queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), hefting her over his shoulder like a sack of stolen booty.
“I will avenge you, Father,” young Amleth repeatedly vows, desperately rowing away in the icy waters from his pillaged coastal kingdom. “I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir.”
Several years later, Amleth is all grown up, a hulking Viking warrior seething with remorseless hunger for retribution—and an appetite for wanton destruction. Woe to anyone who gets in his way or even crosses his path, like the villagers he and his fellow “berserkers” attack in the intensely brutal first act of the film, slashing and bashing their way through the mud and the blood, rounding up the hardiest and healthiest to be sold into slavery and corralling everyone else—including old women and children—into a thatch hut that’s then set fire.
All in a day’s work for a Viking plunderer.
But as much as he feeds off the raw, surging testosterone of remorseless, alpha-male brutality, Amleth doesn’t forget that he’s a man on a singular mission. Given renewed resolve by an encounter with a blind seeress (the Icelandic singer Björk), he disguises himself as a slave and goes “undercover”—aided by a fellow slave, a sexy sorceress Olga (Anya-Taylor Joy)—to find his traitorous uncle.
If those themes—family honor and dishonor, revenge and a young heir seeking to restore a fallen hierarchical house—sound familiar, they should. Shakespeare based his own Hamlet on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth, which itself closely follows the “hero’s journey” arc, the template of many of the world’s greatest myths, folktales and religions.
The bones of this tale may be ancient and primal, but director Robert Eggers creates a whole new world for this majestically bonkers, blood-smeared battering ram of Old World barbarism. Super-saturated with authenticity and historical nitty-gritty, The Northman is a visceral, elemental experience that makes you feel the cold, the muck and the mire, taste the brine of the salty sea—and shiver at the sights you see, watching agog as Amleth’s boundless, boiling rage plays out and spills over, like fox-head soup from a simmering caldron.
An indie auteur who certainly knows how to worm under your skin, Eggers also made the deeply unsettling The Witch (2015), which plumbed the psychological horrors of Puritanical hysteria, and The Lighthouse (2019), about two men going mad and flirting with depravity on a remote, storm-swept island. (Is that a mermaid vagina, or are you just happy to see me?) The Northman, Egger’s biggest-budget movie by far, is less complex and not near as subtle, staying more on the surface of its tempestuous tale and boldly assaulting viewers straight-on with its unflinching depictions of unbridled savagery by a man determined to follow his thread of fate and “die by the blade.” And while it’s not necessarily a pretty film, there is certainly a monumental beauty in its bold, relentless intensity, its rampaging, golly-whopping excess, and its spectacularly staged scenes.
When two semi-naked characters, both who’ve vowed to kill the other, fight and grapple amid the glowing lava of a spewing volcano, it’s a dance of death in what looks like the red-hot bowels of hell itself. You don’t see that in just any movie.
There’s skull-cracking, disemboweling, blood-drinking and beheadings (of men and as well as horses), farting and belching, howling and yelping, and even menstrual flow has its moment. At one point, slaves are forced play a last-man-standing game with a ball and bats, like Harry Potter’s Quidditch—with a much higher fatality rate. The movie packs a lot into its runtime.
And like Eggers’ other films, it’s suffused with some outright weirdness—hallucinogenic initiation ceremonies in which boy “pups” become “wolf” men; recurring visions of a dream-like “Tree of Kings” that depicts past, present and future royalty hanging like fruits from dark, twisted branches; Viking warriors finding their inner beast in a frenzied pre-raid battle ritual.
It’s a man’s world, for sure. But the movie’s female supporting characters—notably Kidman’s queen and Anya-Taylor Joy’s sorceress—point toward a rich subtext about the power of women in that world, one in which young Amleth’s father, the king, cautions him to “seek not the ways of women.” It’s a dismissal, yes, but also an acknowledgement, recognizing that females rule a realm that even the mightiest warrior, and even kings, respect as sacred, hallowed ground. “Your strength breaks men’s bones,” Olga tells him. “But I have the cunning to break their minds.” Valkryies, fierce female spirits, ferry fallen warriors into their afterlives in the halls of Vahalla. And when one female character tells another, “Your sword is long” after getting an eyeful of his impressive, rune-inscribed mystical blade—is that just Viking small talk, or an assertive, slyly suggestive stab of sexual, even Oedipal arousal?
Skarsgård, who first showed off his impressively sculpted physique in The Legend of Tarzan (2016), is even more pumped-up here, a hulking mass of muscle with shoulders so large they look like they were repurposed from the bulwark of a Viking longboat. Kidman’s role is juicier than you first expect, as a character who becomes much more than a damsel in distress. And the young British actress Anya-Taylor Joy—basking in the glow of success after her award-winning role in the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit and in critically hailed movies including Emma and the psych-horror-thriller One Night in Solo—worked with Eggers previously in The Witch, which made her a breakout star when she was only 18. Here, she deflates the classic stereotype of witches as withered old hags, especially when Olga slips out of her smock for a hot-springs rub-a-dub.
And any movie in which Willem Dafoe plays a shamanistic court jester with a waggish tongue that keeps getting him into deep trouble, well, that’s just icing on the Viking cake.
Yes, the Vikings are coming. And in this wild and wooly epic in which mythology and reality comingle, collide and create more than two hours of bloody, brazen big-screen craziness and combustion, I doubt there’s a pro footballer—or even a whole team—anywhere who’d stand much of a chance in a square-off with Amleth.