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The Northman (2022) May 22th, 2022

Blogging about director Robert Eggers unique filmmaking voice is not the way to make one stand out. Nevertheless, here we are. The VVitch is an arresting treatise on the price of puberty and likewise The Lighthouse‘s striking visuals illuminated a descent to madness new to many audiences. Set primarily in 10th century Iceland, his newest film The Northman follows the story of an orphaned princeling (Amleth played by Alexander Skarsgård) seeking revenge against his regicidal uncle.

What The Northman ‘s familiar plot lacks in narrative uniquity it makes up by exploring diagetic magic. Amleth’s story takes him to multiple Campbellian thresholds where he encounters touchstones of Norse myth. Early in the film, after a successful raid he encounters a seeress in the ashes of a building. The witch gives him a prophecy spelling his doom, but after a closer look she’s disappeared. Was she ever there? Later on, after Amleth secures his place as a slave on the Icelandic farm belonging to his traitorous uncle, he follows a fox to a cave where he meets a blind hermit who instructs him on how to secure a mighty sword from a burial mound. The hermit tosses a snake at Amleth’s feet but when the coiled serpent lands he realizes it was only a chord of rope. This same hermit possesses the stuffed head of Amleth’s father’s closest advisor Heimir the Fool (played by Willem Dafoe), the head speaks and further advises the slave prince. Or does it? Was there ever a snake? Did he simply follow the fox, or was it leading him with intention?

The most dramatic example of this disconnect between illusion and reality occurs in the burial mound. The hermit told Amleth a magic sword is buried here with its former owner. Once inside the mound Amleth takes the sword from the dead warrior but this disruption awakens the draugr and a fierce battle ensues. Dramatic camera angles, excitement, peril and eventually victory when Amleth decapitates the undead monster. Or does he? The camera tracks left and we see Amleth standing before the skeleton as he was before taking the sword. He takes the sword and the dusty bones crumble in on themselves. Which is true? Did Amleth fight the beast or did his heightened state of stress mix with his cultural worldview and create a believable hallucination?

Stressed out, starving, perhaps influenced by sulfuric vapors, struggling to rationalize experiences they cannot otherwise explain these are the conditions necessary for myth, legend, faith. The same way you might see a familiar shape in a cloud is how Amleth saw that snake, that witch, that zombie. I think Eggers used a familiar revenge story set in a culture brimming with rich mythology as the vehicle to explore how easily the human brain can change our perceptions and therefore change our reality to fit familiar, comfortable explanations.

The Northman is otherwise a great version of that very familiar story. Nothing should prevent it from joining the ranks of those other great fictions telling this same story. Hamlet? The Lion King? Make room for The Northman.

Eggers’ gift for stunning period filmmaking makes me hope he never gets the urge to produce a contemporary film. The Northman (like his previous features) feels like it was shot on chronol location. Even if the odd anachronisms or historic mischaracterization exists in these worlds they’re undetectable to the untrained eye. I’m extremely excited for his next work, as long as it’s not set anytime after 1870.

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