There’s something about revenge stories that gnaws at us, drawing out the dark and twisted parts of our psyche that revel in the destruction of those who would harm us. We would never dream of getting revenge in the ways these stories portray in real life, but there is something cathartic about living vicariously through someone hell bent on vengeance, someone who will stop at nothing to right the wrongs they have suffered in the most violent ways possible.
At first glance, “The Northman” feels like one of those stories. The third feature film from Robert Eggers is a thundering Viking epic based on a Scandinavian legend, and a disgusting, grueling, smelly, bizarre beast of a movie. The story follows Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), an exiled prince who swears vengeance against his Uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) for killing his father (Ethan Hawke) and kidnapping his mother (Nicole Kidman). If that sounds familiar, it should. The legend is supposedly an inspiration for “Hamlet” – just with more blood, guts, and decapitation.
But this story is constructed as more of an antithesis to that escapist revenge fantasy than the fantasy itself. Eggers’ third film is characterized by a systematic style of filmmaking, almost rigid in its execution, that creates a distance between the story and the audience that allows them to see Amleth’s quest for what it is rather than get swept up in the bloody glory of it all. That methodical quality means the film lacks some of the immersion of his earlier work in “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse.” But it also gives “The Northman” its most spell-binding tension, creating a continuous cinematic battle between the ritual and the profane, between structure and savagery, that’s near impossible to look away from.
Eggers has always been a meticulous filmmaker, but there’s something more unyielding about the composition of “The Northman” than we’ve seen from him before. Nearly each shot is balanced with impeccable symmetry, whether it be the tip of a rooftop dividing the screen directly down the center, or a head-on shot of Amleth rhythmically swimming to shore, the boat he’s just come from situated directly over the top of his head. That symmetry lends a portrait-like structure to the film, some shots mapped out with the pomp and circumstance of a painting, everything painstakingly positioned to balance the screen. But that regal quality feels at odds with the animalistic brutality of the story unfolding, visually portraying the innate conflict of humanity’s constraint and ceremony with its unbridled capacity for violence.
In an early scene, Amleth and a group of Viking berserkers prepare to go on a raid by engaging in some sort of war ritual. The scene opens on the leader of this ritual standing in the center of the screen, flanked by a roaring fire and surrounded by increasingly vicious men cloaked in various animal skins. As the ritual drones on, the men become more bestial, growling and almost frothing at the mouth as they prepare for battle. Yet despite the chaos of the moment, the camera follows the ritual in an analytical manner, moving subtly if at all to keep the group’s positioning as structured as possible, more focused on the mechanics of the ritual than the meaning. When Amleth and his fellow raiders charge into the village, there’s almost nothing in the camera’s movements that would suggest Amleth is in the midst of such a brutal, adrenaline-fueled attack – no shaky maneuvers, no quick cuts, no fast movements. Instead, the camera tracks Amleth through the gruesome scene at one smooth, continuous tempo, maintaining a sense of cold detachment along the way.
But Skarsgård’s performance in these back-to-back sequences is anything but cold or detached, his raw power pushing the boundaries of the filmmaking as far as they’ll go. In the ritual scene, the camera creeps toward him as he undergoes his transformation from man to animal. His physical presence is imposing on its own, but Skarsgård has always had a real way with his eyes – a skill he uses to great effect throughout the film, morphing from kicked puppy to rabid dog through a tightening in his temples or a droop of his brow. It would be easy to focus on his physicality (or the giant wolf carcass on top of his head) in this scene, but the amount of unadulterated fury radiating from his eyes and the flash that occurs when he completes his shift to a beast matches his brute strength with no problem.
The constant push and pull between the precision of the filmmaking and the chaotic brutality of the world it portrays mirrors a central tension of humanity itself. Humankind has a special ability to justify cruelty through religion, mythology, and a thousand other man-made structures. “The Northman” is about one man’s quest for vengeance, but in putting so much focus on the ritual and structure of this world – not just in the story, but in the actual composition of the film itself – it becomes about the societal constructs and passed-down mythology that have caused him to believe the death he doles out in the name of vengeance is warranted. The film is not particularly interested in what exactly these myths and rituals are, but rather interrogating how belief in them can excuse unhindered bloodshed. The camera in “The Northman” serves as much as a guiding force for us as revenge does for Amleth in the film, distancing us from the story just enough to lay bare the truth of human savagery.