‘The Northman’ cries out for battle with fully-realized atmosphere, menacing tone, captivating performances

Noah Levine, Life & Arts Film Columnist

“The Northman,” filmmaker Robert Eggers’ (“The Witch” and “The Lighthouse”) newest work, hits theaters April 22. Co-written with Sjón (“Lamb”), the film follows Viking Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) on his quest for vengeance against the man who killed his father right before his eyes. Along his treacherous journey, Amleth encounters an array of both friends and foes brought to life by a star-studded cast featuring Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe.

Like all of Eggers’ film creations, audiences receive an incredibly developed setting for the narrative. Eggers and his team craft a dreary, foreboding and downright brutal depiction of a time when Vikings savaged lands at the turn of the 10th century. Everything from the set design to the cinematography contribute to the cohesive atmosphere that envelops the entirety of the film.

As young children flee the scene of a Viking raid, the camera soars and hides with them, granting audiences an immersive perspective to these horrors. Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s score only enhances the realization of the world. The composers said they wanted everything to “feel like it was caked in mud and dry blood.”

The world of “The Northman” would be nothing without the talented ensemble of actors that bring its characters to life. Skarsgård brings an unhinged ferocity and dedication to his portrayal of Amleth, perfectly encapsulating the murderous rage of a vengeful son. Taylor-Joy injects an ominous, yet gentle attitude in her role, Olga of the Birch Forest. Her calm, calculated demeanor plays nicely off of Skarsgård’s blind fury, driving his character’s emotions to an interesting ultimatum. 

Supporting cast members Kidman, Dafoe and Hawke inject unique and dynamic elements to the plot with each of their characters’ distinct tones. Kidman crushes expectations with a wonderfully surprising performance as Queen Gudrún. 

Narratively, “The Northman” dips its toes into some unexpected places regarding supernatural elements, but for the most part, it follows a relatively standard revenge plot. Such a plot isn’t a fault to the film as it simply makes the story more accessible despite deep historical roots.

A few screenwriting choices involving certain character decisions and plot situations feel contrived, but most of the story stays on track toward its highly awaited conclusion. Additionally, the more mystical elements of Viking history may come across as tonally inconsistent to viewers with no prior historical knowledge of this period. 

Fans of Eggers’ previous work have known the filmmaker as one to dip quite deeply into the horror genre and all of its macabre elements. While “The Northman” surely checks a box for brutality, it surprisingly shows restraint when it comes to the more horror-adjacent events that could occur within such a story. One instance involving a long-forgotten weapon features a fantastic genre interaction, with everything following never reaching the same height of genre goodness.

Eggers’ “The Northman” is another riveting entry into his ever-growing filmography. Fans of the filmmaker’s previous forays into period-specific thrills will be entertained, whereas newcomers might struggle underneath the weight of its heavy history.

4 battle cries out of 5