Looks like I’m going to be in the minority on this one. I think the trailer is awesome, but this one of those cases where the trailer is significantly better than the movie. I think that has to do with the uneasy mixture of Robert Eggers’ more arthouse approach to storytelling and the needs of a studio fronting $90 million for an action epic. The trailers made it seem like a John Wick but Vikings and even crazier, but Eggers goes for something more emotionally subtle. I don’t think he hits the target.
The young prince Amleth (Oscar Novak as a young boy and Alexander Skarsgard as an adult) welcomes home his father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) alongside his mother Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) after the king returns from conquest. Aurvandill’s brother, Fjolnir (Claes Bang), obviously loved Gudrun and does not accept lightly the jests of the fool Heimir (Willem Dafoe). The foundation of this opening, though, is a coming of age ceremony that Aurvandill and Amleth share where they drink hallucinogenics in the presence of Heimir and bond as father and son. As they leave the little temple to Odin after their experience, it’s easy to feel the connection between them, and then it all gets taken away when Fjolnir attacks and kills Aurvandill, ordering his men to chase down and kill the boy as well. Amleth escapes with the promise to avenge his father, save his mother, and kill his uncle on his lips as he oars into the sea.
Skipping ahead years, Amleth is now a man and part of a tribe of marauders along the coasts of the Land of Rus. He’s a brute, a bear in man’s skin, who shows no mercy to men (though will not kill women or children because this is an expensive movie, and we can’t make our main character too unlikeable). He is lost, though, completely removed from his mission of vengeance, and it takes a mysterious figure (Bjork) to put him back on his path with instructions to find a mythical sword that he will use to kill Fjolnir at the Gates of Hell. So, we have a prophecy. Joy. The movie doesn’t go the Alice in Wonderland route of having be it unquestionable and inevitable. Amleth does come around to questioning it and even trying to avoid it, making his final choices feel like his actual choices, so I won’t hold it against the film too much.
He brands himself a slave bound for Fjolnir’s new, smaller kingdom in Iceland and stows away on a boat that contains other slaves, including Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). It’s getting to Iceland that the movie significantly slows down. Amelth and Olga get purchased by Fjolnir’s men as manual laborers, and Amleth, that very night, figures out a way to sneak out of his farmhouse prison and walk around with impunity. And yet, he dithers. He does not move with the determination and cunning of a wolf or the strength of a bear in the middle of the night to kill his quarry. He follows a wolf into a cave where he encounters a witch, complete with Heimir’s decapitated head in his possession, who gives him instruction on how to find the mythical blade. Amelth, instead of just pursuing his motivation, feels hidebound to follow his prophecy. He gets his blade after fighting with a ghost (that doesn’t actually happen, part of a representation of magic the film makes that I’ll get to in a bit), and now he’s ready for action against Fjolnir, right?
Well, this blade can only come out of its sheath at night, you see, and when Amleth gets close to Fjolnir that very night, the cock crows before he can get the sword out, and he must flee to remain undetected. Now, to talk about how the film approaches magic. Eggers’ previous two films (The VVitch and The Lighthouse) are the same way in that you can interpret the magic as literally happening or being the product of the minds’ of the characters. In The Northman, it’s the same. Does Amleth fight the large figure holding the sword? Probably not. Is the sword only able to come out at night, or does it just stick? Maybe? It’s a movie with hallucinogenic mushrooms, so anything can be imagined. However, the effect of it narratively is to create arbitrary buffers to Amleth’s motivation.
Now, I want to bring up Shakespeare. Shakespeare and Eggers worked from the same source material, a medieval Scandinavian legend of a figure named Amleth. Shakespeare made him Hamlet, and the rest is history. However, Shakespeare eschewed any sort of magic beyond the potential presence of a ghostly father figure, and made it all about character motivations. Hamlet chooses to not kill Claudius while Claudius prays because he wants his vengeance to be complete, sending the villain to Hell for his deeds instead of in the midst of prayer that may save his soul. Amleth, on the other hand, doesn’t kill Fjolnir when he gets his first chance because he can’t get his blade out of its scabbard. It’s not even a question of Amleth wanting the vengeance to be perfect. Fjolnir had just been insulted by Olga after she had rubbed her menstrual blood on his face when he tried to have his way with her. Fjolnir wouldn’t have died in battle, the Viking ideal for a man (and made explicit in the film through early dialogue with Aurvandill), so it would have actually been a perfect time. Do you see my frustration with this choice? It feels arbitrary to keep the film going, not because a character actually decided to choose to do something different from the plan.
Despite this, the film doesn’t just spin its wheels. Amleth works with Olga to take psychological warfare to Fjolnir and his men, using his blade at night to brutally murder some of the men, posting their bodies in obscene manners to strike fear into them. Combined with some mushrooms that Olga gets into the communal soup, the men go mad in the middle of another night. It’s quality, borderline horror stuff, and I like it.
The most interesting turn happens when Amleth reaches his mother. Gudrun ends up more Lady Macbeth than Gertrude, a conniving, manipulative, and evil woman who is willing to say anything to get what she wants and had far more to do with the death of her first husband and the order to kill Amleth than Amleth could have ever imagined. It’s great potential stuff, and I think the movie ends up failing with it.
Things get so bad that Amleth and Olga decide to flee when Amleth’s plans end up going bad (there’s another scene where maybe Amelth is set free by ravens sent by his father’s spirit or maybe it was just Olga and he never saw it and he just filled in the gaps with ravens). She is bearing his child, and he has a choice. He could flee with her, or he could go back and finish his vengeance so that his children will be safe (well, as safe as can be in such a violent world). He chooses his vengeance.
Now, let me talk about Fjolnir for a second. Fjolnir, at this point, is not the main antagonist of the story anymore. It’s Gudrun. Fjolnir is a weak king who lost the kingdom he stole from his brother and had to flee to Iceland to herd sheep. He’s a good father, and he was a tool of his new wife. The main battle isn’t between Amleth and Fjolnir, it’s between Amleth and Gudrun. And yet, what does the movie follow through on? The epic final battle between Amleth and Fjolnir. I think this is where Eggers’ arthouse mindset failed when trying to adapt itself to a more mass appeal form. It’s either that, or the studio demanded the epic battle between two men in a volcano because that’s how you end this movie, obviously.
However, Eggers had laid the groundwork for something far different. In a cinematic world of weird sights, including Amleth being carried to Valhalla by a Valkyrie, there’s room for sights other than two men swinging swords at each other. Combined with the fact that Gudrun is actually the main antagonist of this film, and Eggers could have made this ending psychedelic and fit the emotional journey of Amleth more closely, killing Fjolnir by the end feels empty because he wasn’t the architect of his father’s death. The action climax is misplaced.
The sights are there. There’s actual character work especially between Amleth and Olga. The action is great. I can see why so many people are rapturous over this film. I do not share it. There is enjoyment to be had, but certain arbitrary narrative decisions that impede motivations and the misplaced nature of the ending drag the whole thing down. I was ready to be blown away. I was hit by a slight breeze instead.