Viking movies have a built-in appeal.
They are always about brutal, barbaric adventure. You can count on bloody battles, torture, rape, murder and plunder. They take escapism to the extreme.
The Northman (2022) is no exception.
It is the latest movie from “visionary director” Robert Eggers whose two previous feature films were The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019).
I couldn’t help but notice that the words “visionary director” keep popping up when Eggers’ name appears in promotional materials for this movie. I suspect that it is a stipulation in his contract. Just for the record, I’d reserve a title like “visionary director” for people like Denis Villeneuve whose recent work like Blade Runner 2049 (2017) and Dune (2021) would actually have earned him that accolade.
In fairness, The Witch did grab my attention when it was released. It was creepy, and scary—a low-budget film that really worked. I felt that it ushered Robert Eggers and his break-out star Anya Taylor-Joy out of the shadows and into the spotlight of critical and popular attention.
I couldn’t wait to see Eggers follow-up film The Lighthouse starring William Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. In that movie though, in my humble estimation, Eggers was already showing signs of losing his movie mojo.
In fairness, everyone is entitled to a misstep in their career, so I awaited for his next project The Northman, with its all-star cast including Alexander Skarsgard in the title role and Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke and Anya Taylor-Joy rounding out the cast.
The trailers were eye-popping, as trailers should be. But then came the movie.
The trailer for The Northman was essentially the opening of the film, largely intact, detailing the backstory of a young boy destined to be a Viking king. He’s an adoring son who witnesses his father's gruesome beheading at the hands of his treacherous uncle, intent on stealing his brother's throne and beautiful, blonde-haired queen (Kidman).
There are immediate comparisons here to Shakespeare’s Hamlet as well as Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Conan the Barbarian, who also witnessed the beheading of his mother by a ruthless warrior. In both cases, the trauma launches our hero into a life of suffering leading to a well-deserved, much-anticipated act of revenge.
We all know that revenge movies are some of the most satisfying stories that Hollywood has ever created.
While killing is wrong, killing someone who unquestionably, absolutely deserves to die is a whole other matter. It makes audiences stand up and cheer. Let's be honest.
While the setup in The Northman seems to be suggesting a parallel Conan trajectory involving trials and tribulations and colorful accomplices, The Northman takes a different course, choosing a darker path mired in mud and blood and freezing rain.
There is the sudden, brief appearance of a mystical figure played by Bjork (another nod to Hamlet), but apart from that The Northman is a long, wearisome struggle for survival for our hero Amieth, whose fierce determinaton to avenge his father's murder is palpable.
He is sold into slavery and spends much of his time on a dreary farm doing manual labor and dreaming of a way to capture the heart of his newfound love interest Olga of the Birch Forest (Taylor-Joy), escape his imprisonmant, and kill his loathsome uncle.
Much of the movie’s running time takes place on the remote farm location, giving the impression that The Northman was an epic movie concept being done on an indie, shoestring budget. It becomes bogged down, literally and figuratively, in the cold, sloppy mud that defines the landscape and overall mood.
The Northman is a dark, downer of a medieval world where there is barely a ray of sunshine to offer hope. It is a strange, hybrid world in which no one seems to be speaking the same dialect. For exmple, The Birch Forest from whence Olga came would appear to have been somewhere in Russia.
But accents aren’t the only borrowed elements in The Northman. Film buffs will recognize an encounter with an ancient guardian knight (from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) as well as a homoerotic climactic fight reminiscent of the famous scene in Ken Russell's Women in Love (1969) between lan Bates and Oliver Reed. Add to the list of references a recurring appearance of a crow (right out of The Crow (1994), and some gory disembowelment strongly reflective of Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995).
In the end, The Northman is an overly-long, darkly depressing Viking saga that borrows heavily from at least a half dozen movies. And that makes it fall short of being anything fresh or new or “visionary."
Even Nicole Kidman fans and Anya Taylor-Joy fans will be disappointed. In their defense, they really didn’t have much to work with here in this slow-moving mess. Kidman's evilness is telegraphed in her very first scene, eliminating any possibility of shock or surprise. Taylor-Joy seems miscast here. While her strange beauty is captivating, her frail, delicate appearance makes you question whether she could physically survive in this bleak, barren world for longer than five minutes.
The Northman is in theaters now.
Photo Credits: Aidan Monaghan / © 2022 Focus Features, LLC