Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
In Gladiator Russell Crowe was more than just an interchangeable he-man action figure; though he could heft a sword and execute the requisite brow-furrowing with aplomb, he also conveyed an inner life amidst the brawn. I think the comparison is fair, given the genre circumstances, in which case The Northman comes up short, because Alexander Skarsgård is a blunt-force object here, an arrangement of muscles draped in fur and burlap sacks. That is part of the design, of course; his character, Amleth (played as a child by Oscar Novak) has witnessed the murder of his father, a Norse King (Ethan Hawke), at the hands of the king’s brother (Claes Bang, who brings formidable villain energy), and spent years in exile whilst harboring the flame of revenge.
So, yes, the character exists only as this empty revenge machine, a man robbed of his soul, and Robert Eggers’ film is designed as a modern version of an ancient saga, so why would we expect inner life? Well, maybe because the plot hints at parallels to Hamlet, where inner life thrives. (In The Northman the emphasis is on the too, too solid flesh.) But I’m suggesting that while Gladiator was itself often silly in its story-weaving, it had the advantage of a complex actor carrying the movie on his shoulders, and Alexander Skarsgård, who has frequently been an appealing presence on screen, is no Crowe. In the past Skarsgård has been especially good at finding little shards of humor in his characters, and let’s just say his role here doesn’t exactly bring out the laffs.
I came to The Northman some weeks after it opened, having avoided reading reviews but gleaning a little sense of its reception by osmosis. The impression I’d gotten was general disappointment, and that coming from the director of distinctive films such as The Witch and The Lighthouse, it was somewhat conventional by comparison—and ultra-violent and overlong, too. Hmm, well, it’s not that long (136 minutes), not notably violent (even with its share of beheadings), and frequently quirky even as it fulfills the outline of a Hollywood action-adventure blockbuster. Witchy weirdness abounds—if this is Hamlet, it’s got a lot of Macbeth thrown in—and I greatly liked Willem Dafoe’s jester/shaman, who leads a torchlit ceremony in which King and son flump around in the dirt and bark like dogs. Scattered psychedelic moments—and even just striking visual decisions, like the vivid red blanket in which one character escapes capture—testify that Eggers has not sold out to multiplex expectations.
Not entirely, anyway; it is disappointing that The Northman goes past what would have been a truly radical ending and extends itself for a zany climax that qualifies as Valhalla porn. The single most interesting thing about The Northman is its central reversal of expectations, a dramatic re-drawing of revenge-movie motivations, which comes after 90 minutes or so, about the time when things have frankly become just a little tedious. It would be a spoiler to describe exactly what this is, although keen-eyed viewers and Hamlet fans will see it coming, and it also explains why Nicole Kidman is in this picture (as Amleth’s mother) when she hasn’t done much for the previous hour and a half.
It’s a good scene, and Kidman delivers, although it raises hopes of an entirely different movie in the offing—an anti-Gladiator, if you will. Something we might expect from the director of The Lighthouse, that is. I would like to see that movie, and its imagined possibilities make the actual matter of The Northman look normal by comparison.
July 15, 2022
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.