The Brutal Verisimilitude of “The Northman”

The Brutal Verisimilitude of “The Northman”


The brutal verisimilitude of The Northman.


The Northman, a medieval nordic epic written and directed by Robert Eggers, begins with a familiar setup: a young prince loses his family and kingdom in an act of fraternal betrayal. King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) is assassinated by his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), while his young son Amleth watches; the young prince also sees Fjölnir kidnap his mother, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), as part of a bloody coup to seize Aurvandil’s title and land.

Barely avoiding capture, Amleth escapes and rows away, repeating a vow to avenge his father, kill his uncle, and rescue his mother—an overture to the story of a hero. (The film is based on a Scandinavian legend, recorded in the 13th century, that may have inspired Hamlet.)

We next see Amleth (played as an adult by Alexander Skarsgård) years later, now a formidable warrior applying his martial prowess to raiding Slavic villages. His revenge oath has been indefinitely deferred in favor of pillaging with a band of shamanic berserkers; he isn’t yet aware of Fjölnir’s movements, that his uncle has lost his land and fled to Iceland. Only after the urging of a mystical figure played by the musician Björk does Amleth resume his quest. He disguises himself as a slave bound for Fjölnir’s settlement; once he arrives, he plans a series of escalating attacks with the help of another captive, a Slavic sorceress named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). The campaign eventually destroys the remnant’s of Fjölnir’s kingdom, and Amleth faces his rival in a final duel at the top of a volcano.

Although The Northman represents Eggers’s most ambitious project yet, both in its narrative scope and budget, he is known for choosing stories like this—spooky historical dramas that can skew melodramatic—and managing to avoid sentimentality and shtick through obsessive, anthropological detail. In his previous films (The Witch, a horror film set on the edges of a 17th-century New England Puritan settlement, and The Lighthouse, a darkly funny 19th-century drama that follows two bickering lighthouse keepers in their descent into madness), Eggers has a knack for collecting period-specific ephemera—phrases from accounts of demonic possession, antique camera lenses, a museum-replica pagan rattle, and hand-stitched costumes—to make a coherent facsimile of a world. When the method works, tenets that might seem prosaic to modern viewers become vivid and urgent, located within a faithful reproduction of the setting that produced them.

Although there are flashes of this sensibility throughout The Northman, the film falls into an awkward middle ground between blockbuster epic and the cerebral historical dramas that preceded it, not quite filling either prompt. Moments of revelatory strangeness come inconsistently, and they feel disjointed from a plot that’s too unwieldy for verisimilitude alone to carry. The sequences that lack a sense of context to animate them can feel rote or even silly—a scene in which Amleth duels a ghost skeleton for a magic sword, for example; a couple of instances of animal-based deus ex machina; or the abrupt end of Olga and Amleth’s romantic relationship, soundtracked with a swell of music that make its pathos feel forced. Still, beyond the less convincing scenes, there are glimpses of a more interesting story that reflects Eggers’s broader interest in outcasts, grievance, and the futility of honoring one’s fate.

The parts of The Northman that take place in Iceland are set during a period early in the country’s colonization, about 16 years before the establishment of its parliament in 930 ad. The choice was intentional: The Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón, who cowrote the script with Eggers, told The New Yorker that he “realized that we could slip in a family there, that settled early and then just disappeared from the face of the earth.” In his other films, Eggers has chosen settings on the fringes of a more formal society, which is effective for horror because it makes the consequences of interpersonal friction more dire. To see the danger of these places feels like a forgotten instinct: These small and isolated communities have no guarantee of survival, making their members both acutely dependent on and vulnerable to one another.

When we first see Fjölnir’s settlement, a cluster of buildings in a wide green valley in the shadow of a volcano, it feels precarious, barely rooted in the earth even before the machinations of a vengeful prince work to dismantle it. It’s the kind of place that, in Sjón’s words, looks like it could “just [disappear] from the face of the earth.” Sod-roofed structures covered in fresh grass appear halfway to being swallowed by the ground. With vast stretches of uninhabited wilderness as their alternative, a human village, even one as violent and miserable as Fjölnir’s, binds its inhabitants to it: “Even if you did escape this farm, you’d only be carrion for the blue fox and selkies,” another captive tells Amleth.

In Iceland, for Amleth, two tenets meant to ensure the preservation of social order soon come into conflict: the taboo on murder and the duty to enact vengeance on murderers, especially those who kill kings, whose position of invulnerability is necessary for the strength of the state. This paradox—whether to carry out a string of killings to symbolically buttress the sanctity of life—is at the center of many tragedies, including Hamlet. In The Northman, Amleth doesn’t dwell much on these social and moral intricacies: At one point he kills an opponent during a sports match by headbutting him to death. Yet he decides that he can’t take his final revenge on Fjölnir until the terms of the prophecy made by the seer in the Slavic village are met. “It was foretold that I would slay my father’s killer in a burning lake,” Amleth says. “Until that day comes, I will torment the man who made my life hell…. We thirst for vengeance, but we cannot escape our fate.” In the meantime, with Olga’s help, he executes a gruesome series of attacks on Fjölnir’s men, laden with religious symbolism, which the settlement’s priestess at first blames on a “distempered spirit.”

In this sense, The Northman resembles other recent films—The Green Knight, for example, based on the Arthurian chivalric romance, and Martin Scorsese’s mob drama The Irishman—that place preordained male violence in a nihilistic, almost ironic register rather than in the heroic or tragic tone of an epic. These films facilitate a reading in which acts of violence that define a person’s life can provide a necessary sense of purpose and belonging but also be arbitrary, incidental, or vaguely foolish. Partway through Amleth’s campaign, his mother, Gudrún, confronts him with the revelation that his quest is built on childhood illusions about his parents and that she very much invited Fjölnir’s act of betrayal. Enraged, Amleth kills his uncle’s son, but he isn’t dissuaded from his goal. At the beginning of his final confrontation with Fjölnir, instead of rescuing Gudrún, Amleth murders her in a struggle.

In these films, the violence of men trapped by fate appears both inevitable and like a waste of time; their blood feuds, which give them purpose, contain no inherent depth, eloquence, or special insight. By the film’s conclusion, Amleth’s commitment to vengeance seems divorced from the people it was intended to honor or protect, rolling forward on the strength of its own, preordained inertia. If in Hamlet a prince’s desire for revenge is checked by doubt and melancholia, The Northman’s Amleth would find that kind of introspection totally alien. This single-minded devotion to fate would benefit from Eggers’s anthropological insight; without it, we’re left to extrapolate from religious rituals and scenes of parochial drudgery that being governed by destiny, no matter how destructive, may offer transcendence in a grim, chaotic world. “Hate is all I have ever known,” Amleth tells Olga in the one brief moment in which he considers abandoning his quest to kill Fjölnir. “But I wish I could be free of it.”

The Northman is a brutal and violent film, felt in both its protagonist’s appetite for revenge and a world that seems to require suffering to continue turning. Enslaved laborers are killed at random; in the continuous shots of battle that Eggers favors, half a dozen discrete, horrifying injuries might play out within the same few seconds. During the raid on the Slavic village early in the film, Amleth rips out a man’s throat with his teeth and howls to the sky like a wolf. But the film suddenly cuts ahead, to just after the battle. Amleth is part of a tableau of a dozen wounded berserkers who are hunched over, panting and bleeding from open cuts, their muscles trembling with exhaustion or pain. A separate group of more uniformly dressed and armored fighters administrate the raid’s aftermath. In the longer view, Amleth’s group, dominant in battle, gains the connotation of hired muscle, useful in the fight but peripheral to its planning and an afterthought in the allocation of its rewards.

That moment has curious implications. It presents comfort with brutality as a skill within a hierarchy of skills that a medieval society needs filled, and casts Amleth’s quest in an almost entrepreneurial light. But those threads aren’t pursued. Soon after, Amleth hears about Fjölnir’s loss of his kingdom and his departure to Iceland from a fellow fighter as he is sharpening an axe. “Fjölnir killed his brother for nothing. Now he’s a sheep farmer,” the fighter says, laughing, as the cycle of fate starts over again.

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