The Northman, more than anything, is a breath of fresh air. It kind of feels like a spit in the face to the by-the-book, factory-produced blockbusters that swarm cinemas today, whether it intended to do that or not. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s nice to watch a movie that took place outside. As opposed to inside with a greenscreen to make it look outside. Or, worse, a movie made outside with a greenscreen to make outside look different for some reason.
But seriously, this particular Viking tale looks great and not just because it’s outside, but also because it’s outside in Iceland – a place with a lot of rather dramatic flat bits, rather dramatic cliffs and a very dramatic volcano that all compliment the very dramatic nature of this film.
The story itself is simple something you’ve seen plenty of times; father gets killed, son wants revenge on the killer. Drama and violence ensue. But it’s just how damn aggressive it all is that keeps you watching. Alexander Skarsgard plays our lead, Amleth, who embodies anger and hatred. His blood is boiling in just about every scene and it normally ends in something horrific happening. In fact, a lot of his actions are so horrific and merciless that the film doesn’t even try to pretend he is some wronged underdog; his drive for vengeance has led him to take actions equally, if not more, worse than those that were inflicted upon him. These actions include murdering guards, stripping them naked, chopping off their limbs and nailing them to the homes of residents. He also kills the son of his father’s killer and steals his heart, as well as just generally going out of his way to kill people in the most brutal and graphic way possible. Even before he officially starts his vengence quest, he’s cannibalising fallen foes in Scandinavia, so it’s like he was already barbaric before his downfall into further savagery. And, come to think of it, I don’t think I’ve seen any one film with as many decapitations in it as this one.
And the final showdown between Amleth and his father’s killer (Claes Bang) takes place while both are 98% naked at the bottom of a recently erupted volcano. Amleth is mortally wounded, proves to be too angry to die, and then performs yet another decapitation… Think about the end of Gladiator except instead of seeing Russel Crow opening the door to a peaceful afterlife only to return to reality when he’s about to be stabbed, you have the sweatiest and smelliest man in Iceland literally screaming and roaring his way back to temporary health so he can murder a guy.
But this film isn’t just violence and is far from mindless action. Watching it I was reminded of the theatre, like I was watching a play unfold in the way the movie is paced and how scenes are shot and playout. There’s a lot of uninterrupted long shots and ambiguous visuals it wants you to read into. Mainly, this ambiguity revolves around the mythological aspects of the film. Frequently Amleth talks of Odin, and frequently is he followed and once even saved by flocks of crows – Odin’s signature creature in Norse mythology. I interpreted all this as Amleth romanticising his quest for revenge. Fate and destiny play a large role in this film, but he’s often only telling himself about his own determined fate, while other characters – even prophets – indicate he has a choice to exit his quest for revenge.
When he’s at his lowest Odin supposedly saves him, but we later hear that his love interest (Anya Taylor-Joy) dragged him to safety. When he makes the decision to leave his love to embrace his thirst for vengeance, she summons the gods to give her vessel faster travel away from him, but it’s just as plausible that the winds just picked up. Similarly, her ‘magic’ prayers that Amleth leave behind his anger go unanswered, while his violence seems to only escalate when she agrees they need his wrath to escape Iceland. I think the most obvious example of all this mythology being in his head to justify and romanticise his quest is when he imagines duelling an undead man for a special sword, when all he really did was loot it off of the realistically motionless body. Beyond that, he turns himself into a myth of sorts due to his violent actions being so reprehensible that everyone assumes a demon or angry god carried them out.
Revenge is bad is something that happens a lot in media. So it has to be done differently, or at least to a high standard, to work now. And The Northman does it right. It does it differently and gives you a lot of thematic stuff to think about the whole time. Alongside that, it does it entertainingly and in a way that makes you want to know the ending to a character arc you’ve seen unfold in countless other movies. I think a large part of it is that neither two characters in the final duel are particularly worthy of rooting for, but are still interesting enough to keep you wanting to see the conclusion. So while not the most original movie ever on the surface, I’d argue this film still has something to offer in terms how it goes about telling it’s story.
And if none of that has convinced you to watch the film, know that Willem Dafoe is in this film for about five minutes, and in that time he slaps his naked little Willem and refers to it as his iron.
It’s rather obvious, but yes I would recommend The Northman.