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The Northman Deserves More Than Cult Classic Status

Director Robert Eggers’ new movie has an opportunity to prove an artful viking epic can battle the summer superheroes.

IN A RECENT interview, the director Robert Eggers reflected on the experience of helming his first potential blockbuster. The Northman, out now, is, he said, “literally an epic” in that it adapts an Icelandic revenge saga, and in that it cost more than $70 million. This budget allowed him to indulge in glitzy cinematic extravagance: The studio built him three whole villages and numerous viking ships. Eggers’ last film, The Lighthouse, cost a fraction of The Northman’s budget and wouldn’t have lost much of its power if he’d staged it all in one room.

Yet Eggers also admitted that, had he been offered a do-over, he might have completed a medium-size project in between his “two guys in a lighthouse” film and his large-scale viking flick. The Northman having a budget comparable to Morbius’ means, inevitably, that the industry will be watching to see whether a massive action-adventure film not featuring comic book heroes can rake in some cash. On the studio side, this fact, coupled with Eggers’ previous release featuring a healthy dose of art-house tentacle masturbation, has meant the film has drawn frantic marketing comparing it to much older successes in its genre. Posters (when they’ve actually borne the film’s name) have come adorned with the take “this generation’s Gladiator”; in a New Yorker interview, Eggers invoked Braveheart. The general feeling, he said, is that if it isn’t either of these films, “we’re fucked.”

The age of these two comparisons is revealing. Gladiator, the most recent, came out 22 years ago, and both predate the current superhero franchise boom. Eggers has acknowledged the layout of the modern movie landscape, admitting that, as a kid, he took interest in comic book characters, but that the medieval world and “the sea creatures and the satyrs and the wild men and the demons did kind of put Marvel to shame, in my eyes.” As such, The Northman, then, is more gore than Thor, an arty offering that’ll likely attain cult classic status before it gets boffo box office. It’s on track to bring in $8 million to $12 million in the US this weekend, and while that’s not a pittance, it’s well below, say, a Spider-Man opening weekend. It’s also a shame. Eggers’ movie is formally daring and visually rich and deserves a broad audience.

The Northman opens with a volcanic eruption. A blond boy looks out from his island kingdom, grinning. He can see his father, the king, played by Ethan Hawke, returning with his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang). The king is wounded, however, and informs his queen (Nicole Kidman) that it’s time for young Amleth to become a man, a ritual that sees king and son crawling through a muddy tunnel into a temple-cave, howling like dogs, while Willem Dafoe chants at them, torch flames burning in his sunken eyes. Afterward, they take a walk in the woods, a perfect locale for Fjolnir to commit a spot of jealous fratricide. Amleth slices off a guard’s nose and escapes, rowing to safety, chanting “I will avenge you father; I will save you mother; I will kill you Fjolnir!”

Several decades skip by and Amleth is a grown man, a preposterously ripped Berserker who howls at the moon and bites out the throats of his enemies. The Northman is based on the Viking story of Amleth, an Icelandic folktale; Shakespeare drew on the 13th-century version recorded in the The History of the Danes, for Hamlet. But unlike the Danish prince, Amleth is a psychopathic monster, watching as his compatriots burn children alive. After he hears the slaves they have captured are to be sold to his uncle, he marks himself with a branding iron, passing himself off as one, and stows away with Olga, a witch played by Anya Taylor-Joy.

Eggers’ style is to mix horror with history. Accuracy, he has said, is not a must for historical films, but it lends a helpful structure to the stories he wants to tell. His first film, The Witch, which cost $4 million, follows a family in 17th-century New England who leave the safety of their village after a religious dispute. Their new home, inevitably, sits on the perimeter of a ridiculously creepy dark wood. Witches, in Eggers’ telling, are women who do not conform to society’s expectations of them, religious or otherwise. This rebellion transforms them, in the fantasies of their accusers, into baby-stealing satanists. The movie’s smart twist is to take this transformation literally: at the film’s end, the innocent Thomasin, played by Taylor-Joy, has no choice but to accept witchhood, selling her soul for survival and the “the taste of butter.”

The Lighthouse, also an American horror story, is even less commercially appealing. It focuses on two lighthouse keepers, or wickies—one a veteran (Willem Dafoe), one a novice (Robert Pattinson)—stranded at their island post. A kind of farcical fever dream, both men are buffoons: Defoe, for instance, is closer to Captain Haddock than Captain Ahab and demands Neptune strike Pattinson dead because he refuses to compliment his lobster dinner.

Eggers, in other words, would not have been many people’s first choice for taking on a commercial picture, and his responses in interviews do suggest he found compromising for a wide audience difficult. He cited Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev as an influence but said that “it’s not anywhere near that good, and Tarkovsky would hate [The Northman] with every ounce of his Russian soul.” He disliked the process of audience testing (though admitted it may have made the film more entertaining), suggested that including Valkyries was probably “distasteful” but necessary in a commercial picture, and declared he was “sick” of thinking about the film at all. (The latter, to be fair, is surely true of most artists after they’ve finished a piece of work.)

It’s amazing, then, that The Northman feels so much like a Robert Eggers film. Beyond anything, this movie is nothing like Gladiator. For one, there’s little of that film’s courtly politicking. (The Northman, therefore, is also nothing like Game of Thrones: Why scheme when you can act?) Eggers focuses instead on visually splendid battles, shot in grueling single takes, influenced by the Hungarian filmmaker Miklós Jancsó. He excels with weird rituals: The Berserkers (or bear-serkers, get it?) beat their chests and dance in animal skins, while a shaman dressed as Odin casts spells into a fire. Just the craftsmanship behind their helmets suggests that profound attention has been paid to the accuracy of the vikings’ world. Asterix and Obelix, this is not.

Eggers calls his films archetypal stories: The Northman is, in Jungian fashion, packed with symbols and signs. A recurring one is a kind of tree of life, which links Amleth’s past and future lineage via glowing blue roots. And like all of Eggers’ films, this one features an iconic animal. In The Witch it was the devil goat, Black Phillip; in The Lighthouse it was a one-eyed seagull; here, it is Odin’s flock of ravens. These images are intensified by Eggers and his cinematographer Jarin Blaschke’s preference for extreme close-ups and intricately storyboarded shots. A fight in a volcano sees the two warriors pause in profile, mirroring a moment from a dream sequence in The Lighthouse.

At points, the movie looks like a comic book. But, maybe because my mind is currently swimming in Elden RingThe Northman reminded me most of a fantasy video game. This comparison first came into focus during one of the movie’s more obscenely violent moments, when Amleth dismembers two enemies and rearranges their body parts in a bloody Picasso. But then the similarities seemed to be everywhere. The movie’s set pieces operate like quests: traverse over Iceland’s hot springs; raze the enemy village. There’s a stealth section, where Amleth creeps over houses, looking almost identical in silhouette to Sekiro. There’s a boss fight with a skeleton lord, where Amleth must push the king into the moonlight to damage him. There’s even a Croquet mini-game from hell, with players smashing each other’s skulls open with mallets.Most Popular

This sense radiates out from Amleth himself. He is nothing like Gladiator’s Maximus, a gruff good guy. Instead, he is a hulking power fantasy, an asshole closer to Kratos in God of War. The film’s heightened, sometimes stilted lines could be plucked straight out of an RPG’s dialog tree: Amleth describes himself as “a hailstorm of vengeance and steel” and tells Taylor-Joy “I have never loved, only felt rage.” This tone may be the movie’s biggest weakness. Amleth is single-minded, his motivations shallow, and his fate locked in. We know how this film ends from the outset.

Myth has always provided a good setting for games, so these overlaps are unsurprising. Myth has also provided good fodder for cult classics (hello, Xena). Perhaps, though, RPG fans—and those fueling the current viking resurgence—will help Eggers pillage an audience from all the superheroes currently in the spotlight. He deserves it.

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