While The Northman is at its best when celebrating Norse mythology through wild almost hallucinogenic imagery of feral men dancing and howling around fires in the night or combating the dead within the ancient tombs of night, it is tempered all too often with bland hyper-masculine power fantasy. The beautiful cinematography, rich portrayals of Viking characters, and breathtaking Norse style amp up an otherwise very bland story of revenge to something quite enjoyable, even if not quite fully satisfying.
As a young man just entering adulthood, Amleth, son of King Aurvandil War-Raven, welcomes his father home. After a brief celebration, his father ushers Amleth through a right of passage to become a man. Shortly after, Amleth is witness to the murder of his father Aurvandil at the hands of his uncle Fjölnir, who then calls for the murder of young Amleth. After escaping his uncle's treachery, Amleth escapes to the mainland to grow strong before returning to Iceland to pursue revenge for his father and to save his mother.
There are two parts to The Northman that breathe life into the film. The first is the absolutely outstanding portrayal of northern landscapes filled with memorable art and culture. Robert Eggers has imbued every scene with a sense of otherworldly madness. The howling half-mad men of the north dancing around fires in the night, screaming through the streets, and fighting naked in the light of the fire of volcanic activity under the eyes of the statues of Viking gods are all the stuff of dreams and nightmares.
The second part of the formula that makes The Northman work is the acting. Alexander Skarsgård has been a favorite of mine ever since his days on True Blood, and I'm always happy to see him get to act his heart out. Nicole Kidman and Anya Taylor-Joy in particular both get to shine with memorable framing and intimidating stage presence that stands out even in a film dripping with so many abs that they must have spilled out of one of Zach Snyder's wet dreams. Willem Dafoe is absolutely haunting while both Claes Bang and Ethan Hawke etch out some of the more believable humans in the world to keep it just a touch grounded.
Ultimately, though, The Northman is just missing something. I think it leans too heavily and too unapologetically into the power fantasy of it all without anything really to say about it. The camera sometimes lingers meaningfully in ways that undercut Amleth's merit in his quest for vengeance and there are other story elements that may give some pause to the audience, but, at the end of the day, Amleth is given just cause to lean all the way into his murderous vengeance even after deciding to be the bigger man and walk away. It's a particular pet peeve of mine to see characters undergo the needed character growth to have had an arc, preventing them from being woefully flat, only then to give them a plot reason why they get to just go kill everyone they wanted to anyway despite their change of heart.
You will probably have a lot of fun watching The Northman, but I still would like to have seen something that was just a little deeper.
|An action flick that feels unsatisfying despite its rich norse flavor.