“The Northman”, a violent epic of Viking revenge, is not a good movie. It’s like “Gladiator” without the Colosseum and with a stubbornly uninteresting Hulk Avenger hero. (It also drags 45 minutes longer than it should have.) Many critics have praised the film because they feel invested in the career of Robert Eggers, the maverick independent director who helmed the spectral puritan horror film “The Witch” (2015) and the even more awe-inspiring gaga period fever dream of two men in a lighthouse “The Lighthouse” (2019). I’m invested too. I share Eggers’ enthusiasm – he’s a major talent.
Yet even though “The Northman” is a medieval Icelandic saga decked out in fire, gore, mud, folkloric hallucinations, and random gobs of Nordic mystical weirdness (not to mention “Hamlet’s” most perverted element of turned it up a notch), I only wish I could say the movie fails because it goes too far with all of this. Three years ago, “The Lighthouse” felt steeped in 19th-century weirdness, with Willem Dafoe’s wacky, searing-eyed, old-seasalt performance acting like some kind of human time machine. In “The Northman,” the trappings of tall tales are displayed with fetishistic solemnity, but in the end, they’re just window dressing.
A handful of critics have nailed the film for what it is, including Peter Debruge in his Variety review, so I don’t feel the need to stack. What I want to add to the dialogue is that when I watched “The Northman”, I felt like I was watching two movies at once. The first is the underwhelming one, one that gives you a glimpse (but not enough) of the quirky, revealing take on the Viking world you wanted from Robert Eggers. The other is the solidly conventional, well-crafted story of strength, anger, and vengeance that “The Northman” is in his bones. I said to myself: I have already seen this film. He’s who “Conan the Barbarian” wanted to be 40 years ago.
Eggers said he was forced to compromise his vision due to both the pandemic and demands made in the wake of it by Focus Features, the studio behind “The Northman.” But without being aware of many details about what these creative battles were about (one was that he wanted to shoot the whole movie in Iceland but couldn’t and had to outsource to Ireland with CGI) you have to to ask: how much was “The Northman” really hurt by the dictates of the studio given that the more boring aspects of the film are at the very heart of it?
I liked the opening scenes with Ethan Hawke, who brings a sordid humanity to the role of King Aurvandil. But the first place I could feel the film went wrong was in the flamboyantly brutal sequence in which the king’s son, Amleth, turned brooding, brooding rower played by Alexander Skarsgård, takes part in the rampage of a fortified village. It’s Eggers’ great play of rape and looting, and there’s no denying that it’s staged with viciously effective bloodthirsty choreographic panache, all-in-one, with the camera following Amleth through the village as he crushes his sword on anyone who comes his way, or perhaps cuts off a limb or two, approaching each victim as if clubbing a mosquito. He is, in a word, invincible. We’re supposed to record all of this and think, “Cool.”
But wouldn’t that be a authentic Does the Viking saga make its murderous hero seem a little less indomitable than the Mighty Thor? The village destruction scene is not shot as an exciting fight sequence; it’s shot like a video game. And it’s more than a matter of action logistics. It also reflects an ideology, a kind of reductionism of the force of good that leaves us less excited or devastated than very distant. The people Amleth kills are innocent. Shouldn’t we be feeling something other than extreme video game admiration for what it does? Somehow, I don’t feel like the choice of how to shoot this sequence was imposed on Robert Eggers. I also don’t think the Focus executives ever handed him a note saying, “Robert, how many times have we talked about this?” You to have to make your hero less interesting.
After ‘The Lighthouse’ and ‘The Witch’, what ‘The Northman’ reveals about Robert Eggers is that he is perfectly capable, single-handedly, of dreaming up an epic action movie that hits all the centuries-old ratings of market tests. Admittedly, “The Northman,” which only made $12 million this weekend (on a reported production budget of $90 million), is no blockbuster. But it’s a film that proves, beyond the shadow of a scythe, that Eggers has the ability — and, if he sands it hard enough, the commercial vision — to helm blockbusters of heavy conventionality. . In “The Northman,” he doesn’t so much make a non-working indie film as a bloated studio feature with indie trimmings. It looks to me like it’s walking straight into the traditional metaverse.
There’s a whole class of gifted directors who try to bring their sensibility to the kind of genre material that came with Roman numerals after – and more often than not what happens is that they end up being swallowed up by that. By the end of this year, David Gordon Green will have made three “Halloween” films, and to what end? The first, at least, was effective nostalgia (it was like ’70s faux slasher “The Force Awakens”), but basically what David Gordon Green delivered was box office receipts. (Green’s next step: rebooting “The Exorcist.”) Sure, there are directors who thrive on embracing their inner B-movie geek, like Justin Lin, who became lead writer on the “Fast and Furious”. . And there are filmmakers who know how to imagine the philosophy of the blockbuster on a large scale, like Ryan Coogler, of “Black Panther” and “Creed”. Maybe Robert Eggers will be one of them.
But what ‘The Northman’ tells me is that while I want Eggers to take stock after this movie and start making movies like ‘The Lighthouse’ again, which I could easily imagine happening instead is “The Northman,” in its fusion of high kinesthetic skill and lack of drama, acting like a calling card movie. It’s not a good movie, but it’s a failure made with chops. It’s done, in a weird way, without enough real drama to get in the way of the chops. The film doesn’t skimp on the emotional resonance so much as it slaughters it. It’s just numb enough to kick off a whole new career.