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Describing “The Northman” as director Robert Eggers’ most approachable film is deceptive. Prior works by the filmmaker, such as “The Witch’s” puritanical hallucinations and “The Lighthouse’s” desolate, mermaid fetishization, traded in traditional macabre American folklore for unconventional, ambient freak-outs. “The Northman” repeats the best instincts of those films, albeit with less success. By dragging viewers through extreme devotion to familial honor, it demands that audiences deconstruct overbearing patriarchal values, toxic masculine heroism, and the folly of revenge. Eggers’ brand of psychological shock is bolder than in previous works and more potent in bursts, but it barely works on its own.
When Eggers first released “The Witch,” his brand of horror was dubbed “elevated.” The New England filmmaker delivered genre-defining scares with a new devil-may-care glee for the sinister that pushed the sonic and visual possibilities of supernatural angst. Eggers combines slicker aesthetics and broader emotions, played out on a grander scale, with his familiar interests in the inherent weirdness that runs through ancient mythology in “The Northman.” It tells the story of Amleth (Alexander Skarsgrd), a hulking, enraged Viking warrior prince looking for vengeance for a lost kingdom in Scandinavia. Modern audiences will be familiar with this legend through its well-known English adaptation, Hamlet, which recalls unbreakable Amleth’s determination, as unforgiving as the punishing landscape, to reclaim his usurped throne. Also, you must try to play this The Northman Quiz.
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This isn’t your typical hero’s journey, complete with a dashing royal. Amleth lives in a harsher, kill-or-be-killed era where there is no greater honor for a king than to die by the blade. His father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), who has recently returned from war, damaged and wounded, worships this reality by preparing his young son for the possibility of bloodshed: a carnal ritual taking place in a smoky, otherworldly cavern that involves a mystical invocation to the ancestors led by Heimir the Fool (and unhinged Willem Dafoe), during which Amleth and Aurvandill whoo In “The Northman’s” world, we’re all just rabid animals inhabiting flabby sacks of human skin. Our only obligations are primal: to avenge our fathers and defend our mothers and kingdoms. It’s an oath taken similarly by his mother, Queen Gudrn (Nicole Kidman), and ignored by his uncle, the imposing black-bearded Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who, of course, brings tragedy to young Amleth’s life by killing his father and forcing him to far-flung shores where he becomes a bitter, musclebound warrior. Also, you will find out which character are you in this quiz.
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Much of the film, shot by Jarin Blaschke and edited by Louise Ford (both collaborators on “The Lighthouse” and “The Witch”), rests on a polished visual flair, with the director employing more camera movement than usual. Ford edits a vicious sequence involving Amleth and a band of skin-clad Vikings wearing bear-pelt headdresses, in which the pack methodically rampages a village for kills. With bodies bathed in blood and bone-chilling macho screams emanating from insatiable men, the elaborate tracking shot accompanying the scene feeds the camera’s delirious appetite for flesh. In one scene, a burning house filled with wailing villagers serves as a backdrop to Amleth’s unflinching gaze into the camera, reminiscent of Elem Klimov’s antiwar film “Come and See.” Unlike Klimov’s film, this is not a depiction of a boy horribly scarred by war. This is a ferocious and defiant man who thrives on conflict and gore.
“The Northman” is the kind of film where even the mud rages; it is a visceral film filled with codas to nature’s inescapable darker regions: animal, elemental, and, most harshly, human. They all vibrate to the beat of Eggers’ signature warped soundscapes and Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s brooding score, while ambient reverbs and decaying delays reach back to primordial origins. Amleth’s family tree, an ever-evolving stand-in for the divine rule, is rendered as a blue glowing arterial fern arising from his heart while connecting to ours in the trippy hypnotic dreamscapes. It’s one of the many magical tendrils that intertwine and sometimes knot in “The Northman,” a film in which Björk plays a blind seer pointing Amleth toward a sword with a dull-less blade and an unquenchable thirst for death.