The night before I saw The Northman I carved out an hour of video game time, which plunged me back into the Viking saga that is Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. I, a Norse leader with brutal ax moves and cool hair, ventured across Britain after my brother, whose destiny was tied to my own per trippy visions littered throughout the game. My first task was to find some dude and get my bro’s location from him. I didn’t get past this task in my allotted hour, though, because when I found him he passed me off to some monk, who told me to find a drunk under a bridge, who sent me to a nearby castle to kidnap someone, and between the bridge and the castle I ran into an old enemy I had to kill (such important assassinations involve taking out lots of minions and then a cutscene where you slide your knife into the person’s heart, the camera following your blade into the person’s innards).
Fetch quests and protracted story arcs like this one are as common to Assassin’s Creed Valhalla as quick, bloody raids are, which combined with all the mythology and viscera ended up being the best primer for The Northman’s riff on the legend of Amleth this novice of Scandinavian culture has encountered. Plenty of its two-plus hour runtime is spent twiddling its thumbs and getting sidetracked, just like I did the night before, and more than a few of its visions seemed rooted in the same crap-I-went-in-the-wrong-cave-and-now-a-fox-is-talking-to-me style storytelling. Are these common aspects of Scandinavian lore? Perhaps (I’m no expert), but you wouldn’t guess it from the way The Northman plays nearly every beat of its story with the pomp and circumstance of a grand story you’ve never seen before. It’s true that Viking sagas are rare at this scale of filmmaking, but one must remember that film isn’t the only storytelling method out there.
There are things, of course, that no other medium does as well, and co-writer/director Robert Eggers is an undisputed master of atmospheric, immersive filmmaking. In just his third film after The Witch and The Lighthouse, The Northman drops you into the murky, grimy world of the first millennium, where candle-lit interiors make you squint to see how much blood is soaking everyone’s clothes (it’s a lot). It’s a place where ominous visions lurk around every corner and the division between man and beast is thin, and the sheer breadth of possibility within this immaculately constructed world is enough to carry the vast majority of its runtime.
Which is good, because the story of Amleth doesn’t exactly pop with originality or meaning. When I first heard the basic setup, that young Amleth sees his father murdered by his uncle and becomes consumed by his need for revenge, I flippantly categorized it as a Viking Hamlet. My concept of time, of course, was wildly off; The story of Amleth is far older and is a precursor to Hamlet, meaning this is, with little exaggeration, a tale as old as time. That makes the plot is a tired one to drag out for more than two hours, and the slack must be picked up by the atmosphere (already a noted success) and the underlying emotional and thematic threads (not successful, its failure broken down below).
Amleth is the unwavering focus of the movie, played briefly by the wide-eyed and game child actor Oscar Novak and in adulthood by Alexander Skarsgård. I doubt anyone is wondering why Alexander was cast; he’s a hulk of a man that looks good in Eggers’ meticulous frames, which have never shied away from a nude body. But Alexander has been in on the project from square one, a credited producer intent on bringing the myth and the ethos of his native Scandinavian lore to the big screen. Interviews make this out to be a passion project for him, and while the drive can be seen in the way he throws his body into what was almost certainly a grueling production, it doesn’t come across in the development of character or theme.
Amleth is a perpetual known unknown, a quiet man with fearsome tunnel vision. One wonders, watching him go about the business of slaughter, whether he’s ever considered other ways of life (when the answer comes, it’s a beat of such serious silliness that I was unsure if I was supposed to laugh). Other characters who encounter his brutish mission bounce off him with unsurprising ease. I mean, how is a cunning woman (Anya Taylor-Joy, whose cunning is fungi identification, I guess) supposed to pull time away from this vacuum of a central character? Everyone else is played by equally skilled and recognizable performers; Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, and an in-movie game of Spot The Witch Cast make it feel like the characters in his orbit have dimensions that simply don’t pan out. And Skarsgård, at the center of it all, is a familiar man without an ounce of unexpected drives or faults, an enchanting but uninteresting vessel.
By the time the inevitable conclusion rolls around, the film’s atmosphere has lost its thrill to the cold, plodding story that would’ve wrapped up an hour ago if not for a much-whispered about destiny, which in a mythical world controlled by Gods is a decent delay tactic but in third millennium filmmaking is just flawed storytelling. In the end, the film becomes the same as its protagonist: a beautifully bloody empty shell, which is just enough for me.
Release: available now in theaters
Director: Robert Eggers
Writers: Robert Eggers, Sjón
Cast: Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe