by Rob DiCristino
In the opening sequence of Robert Eggers’ The Northman, Viking King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) submits his young son (Oscar Novak as Amleth) to a ritualistic ceremony of beastial indulgence — barking, growling, and farting — while psychedelic visions race before his eyes. In those visions, Amleth sees his father’s death, his future as a righteous king, and his rise to glory in Valhalla. He sees through space and time, through light and darkness. Supervised by a shrieking mystic who cackles with perverse delight (Willem Dafoe, obviously), the ritual will test his mettle and determine if he has the makings of a true king. If this is too much for you — If blood-soaked chants and animal sacrifices aren’t your jam — it’s best to turn away now. It’s only going to get trippier and more esoteric from here. Those who stick around, however, will witness indie auteur Eggers’ (The Witch, The Lighthouse) first true epic, a sprawling romance and revenge story drawing from eons of mythological traditions that widens the director’s scope without sacrificing his signature style.
Though The Northman is undoubtedly Eggers’ most sprawling and complex film to date, it also retains his eye for character and nuance: Action sequences are often framed in longer takes that give us enough space to see the beats in-between, the human awkwardness and desperation of hand-to-hand combat. The drama is behavioral, as well, since Amleth’s tendency toward silence tells us just as much as other mens’ need to bloviate and proclaim. With all that said, The Northman is also an unabashed assault on the senses. In shaping Amleth’s quest for justice, Eggars and co-writer Sjón embrace Norse myth and ritual with such visual grace and intensity that we can’t help but feel his religious fervor as he belts out guttural chants and butchers hapless guards. Even his romance with Olga presents like an epic poem; Their first love scene is bathed in forest moonlight, with Olga praying over their union with such passion that we’re sure their bond is eternal. The Northman is most definitely grody, vicious, and blood-thirsty, but it’s also remarkably delicate and beautiful.