If you asked someone who the main character of The Northman is, they’d probably look at you like you’d grown a second head. It’s in the title, isn’t it?
Ostensibly, Robert Eggers’ film, set in the age of the Vikings, is the story of the titular “Northman” Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård). He is a prince, child to King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) and Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). He lives as idyllic a life as one can in the tenth century, learning the ways of his dynasty through mystic Nordic rituals. His world falls apart when his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) murders his father, claims the throne for himself, and takes his mother hostage. Having escaped his own assassination, Amleth promises that he will avenge his father, rescue his mother, and kill his traitorous uncle (in that order: it’s a mantra he repeats as he escapes in a boat for parts unknown).
When we next see Amleth, he has joined a band of Vikings who tear down villages with ruthless, almost feral abandon. It’s here where the true main character of The Northman reveals itself. It isn’t the Seeress (played by none other than Björk) who refocuses Amleth on his mission of revenge. Nor is it Amleth’s love interest, the sorceress Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). It isn’t even Amleth, as he sets forth on his mission of vengeance, pretending to be a slave to infiltrate Fjölnir’s new stronghold. Brutality is the main character, and damn, is it captivating to watch. Brutality has more screen presence than any human character, commanding your attention as it slices through every shot it claims for itself. It is equally ferocious, relentless, off-putting, and mesmerizing.
Brutality doesn’t just manifest in The Northman’s violence. Eggers weaves it through every cinematic element: the earthy browns and grays that add an atmospheric grit to each scene; the caked-on dirt that decorate costumes and skin alike; even how he positions his (other) lead characters in the camera’s center, allowing the fire behind their eyes sear you deep inside. Violence does play its part, and Eggers leaves nothing to the imagination.
Rather than frame the decapitations and severing of limbs from the perpetrator’s perspective, Eggers pulls back and captures these vicious acts from a distance. Sometimes, he holds the camera still; other times he slowly pans across the landscape, surveying the blood-drenched damage. From this removed vantage point, there is no plausible deniability. Amleth doesn’t just cut someone down and zoom past them; Eggers lays out the carnage the people of this world leave behind. It’s horrifying and stupefying and harder to hide from than you might think.
To Eggers’ credit, he understands that The Northman couldn’t just be two-plus hours of spilled innards and chopped heads. It would probably be too much for even the most iron-clad stomachs, nor does it make for especially deep storytelling. He does grant some respites, through Amleth’s romance with Olga and detours into Nordic mysticism that push the film right up to the line of magical realism.
These lower-temperature moments are The Northman at its weakest, when its grip on us slightly loosens. Without brutality at the forefront, sucking up all the air on the screen, the slightness of its human characters becomes clearer. Amleth, for instance, isn’t much more than vengeance personified. We see that he’s capable of love and compassion at times, but we don’t see how those warmer human traits survived his trauma. Exploring those less brutal emotions would’ve added dimension to a character who, without an axe or sword, we don’t know much about, even if it pulled some necessary focus away from his vengeful quest. It’s a problem that impacts nearly every character in the film. (More on Queen Gudrún in a moment.)
It’s a shame because The Northman boasts a cast that specializes in peeling back their characters’ layers to uncover the unexpected. Alexander Skarsgård is particularly skilled at this in True Blood and Big Little Lies. Here, he’s often reduced to a hulking man who screams a lot in all-consuming rage. He is a very convincing screamer, but he’s capable of more than just base barbarity. Sometimes, those shades peek through the bloodied curtain, like in his scenes with Anya Taylor-Joy and Nicole Kidman in the final act, but they are few. Speaking of Kidman, she makes a meal out of the film’s meatiest role, relishing in the bizarre fusion of Oedipal and Lady Macbeth complexes that define Gudrún. Her reunion with Almeth is as unsettling as all the beatings, decapitations, and volcano fights the film throws at us. With all due respect to the title, it’s the Northman’s mother who might leave the biggest impression.
The Northman is a masterpiece of feral fury, an unvarnished and unapologetic case study on revenge and its capacity to destroy everything in its path. Filmmaking rarely feels as raw and stunningly unhinged as Robert Eggers achieves here. The film’s tunnel vision approach does limit its scope, especially in the way of character development, but that might hinge on your understanding of character. If a state of being can be considered a character, then The Northman is a rousing success, giving brutality the best story imaginable.