With The Northman, Robert Eggers completes a trilogy of films about the white frontier – frontier narratives reimagined as thresholds of extreme whiteness in the present. In this case, he distils the foundational Western narrative, Hamlet, to its brutal Viking source, and sets it adrift in a numinous world of fire, sea and sky, using beautiful landscape photography that vividly captures the North Atlantic as the raw material of Norse myth. In this incarnation, Amleth, a young Viking prince, has no sooner been initiated into the ways of his bloodline than his father, Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) is brutally murdered by his uncle, Fjolnir (Claes Bang), who also claims his mother Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) as his own. Amleth narrowly escapes, and we meet him again years later, now played by Alexander Skarsgard, amidst a band of Viking berserkers – warriors who followed the cult of the wolf or bear, and saw brutal bloodshed as a form of trance-like transcendence, regardless of the political consequences. After burning a group of children to death in a house, Amleth recovers the rage of his own childhood self, and poses as a slave in order to be sent to Iceland, where Fjolnir, who has been deposed in the intervening years, now operates a small kingdom in the remote high country.
From the outset, Eggers makes it clear that this Scandinavian epic is not merely imitating but exceeding Game of Thrones, the clearest point of reference. Many of the opening scenes are shot through with a metallic grey palette, like the film has been beaten into steel, and while Eggers soon moves into a vast array of different colour schemes, he frequently reverts back to this more muted and steely optic during key moments of action or revelation. The film itself feels like an object that has been forged from metal, and many of the compositions have a frieze-like quality, in which the camera moves laterally across a complex action scene, but without generating three-dimensional depth in a modern manner. Instead, these planes of space collapse back into a kind of frozen movement, a timeless and mythic sense of duration.
That approach sets the scene for Eggers’ essential project: to provide us with the cinematic equivalent of a Norse myth. Critically, this doesn’t simply involve visualising the events and figures of the myth, but using cinema as a vehicle for the thaumaturgic power that inheres in the very recital of the myth. As oral media, myths gained their power from accumulated retellings, and from all the renditions that had both preceded and informed whatever iteration was being delivered in the present. Eggers thus recounts as much as directs the film, situating the script in a diffuse space between dialogue and voiceovers, diegetic and non-diegetic speech, that can make it difficult to distinguish natural from supernatural utterances. Most of the key plot points are driven by ritualistic and ceremonial speech acts that dissolve this diegetic boundary even further, from the opening scene, in which Aurvandill introduces Amleth to the cult of the raven, to a pivotal scene in which Bjork appears in the guise of a Seeress, to the appearance of a He-Witch who provides Amleth with the shape of his destiny.
Even more than the events of the myth, then, The Northman is fixated with the moment of occult recital. To deliver a myth, Eggers suggests, is to embody it, and the film brims with that same thaumaturgic power – it is an enactment, rather than a mere adaptation, of Norse history. The mystical addresses within the film and the mystical address of the film itself coincide with the forging of Draugr, a magical sword, whose metallic textures become a synecdoche for the metal-beaten palette of Eggers’ vision. No surprise, then, that Draugr can only be unsheathed at night, under the silver-and-grey light cloak of moonlight, which collapses its frieze-like etchings into the broader compositional principles that drive the film.
All of these innovations position us the occult inception of a mythic recital, the moment when regular space and time collapse into the thaumaturgic power of the bard. Yet this is merely the start of a process that depends on rhythm and metre for its escalating otherworldliness. To that end, Eggers infuses his film with a poetic metre, partly through the constant percussive score, and partly by periodically reining the action in to to regular rhythmic activites. When we first meet Amleth as an adult, he’s pulling in time on a rowboat; when he arrives in Iceland, he disguises his true identity beneath the metric labour of nailing in fence posts, dragging stones and beating rags. This underlying poetic metre propels a series of heroic trajectories to and away from the camera, and then the movements of the camera, which performs a scansion of all the events that it embodies, keeping us (and itself) in time.
While this thaumaturgic approach works beautifully to evoke the mercurial world of Old Norse myth, it also services a much more contemporary version of white masculinity – a po-faced, death-metal machismo that revels in the bear-wolf cult members as “beasts cloaked in man-flesh.” From the opening initiation ceremony, in which Aurvandill encourages Amleth to burp, fart and drool as abjectly as possible, this is the masculine body reduced to its most bestial form, and yet curiously curated and manicured at the same time. Eggers offers a seemingly endless parade of muscular bodies that ripple so emphatically under their wrist bands, with such tight definition under their constant wash of blood and sweat, that they can only result from modern workout regimens, rather than the more brutish demands of the Viking lifestyle. Add to that a plethora of pedantically stylised beards, and The Northman often feels more like a Norse-themed bootcamp session, a crossfit advertisement, or the ego ideal of Tough Mudder competitors, drenched in “authentic” white masculine self-abandonment.
That all peaks when Amleth is forced to play a brutally primitive version of hockey for the benefit of Fjolnir and Gudrun. As he pummels the opposition into submission, we’re back in the realm of contemporary sports, but with their atavistic undercurrent unleashed – that brief glimpse you get of an older masculine tribalism just after someone scores a touchdown, or when tensions temporarily spill out into an onfield brawl. Like that kind of sports machismo, The Northman is always on the cusp of being totally ridiculous – or maybe it is ridiculous from the very outset, but its sheer self-regard and monotonal self-focus is enough to carry it along. The downside is this epic narrative is aways on the verge of total solipsism, on the brink of being nothing more than a long tracking-shot across Amleth’s blood-and-sweat-soaked torso.
Once we arrive in Iceland, that muscular topography starts to take the place of the extraordinary variety of North Atlantic landscapes that pepper the first act. While Eggers does his best to draw out the cosmic coordinates of this remote rural landscape, he turns more and more to Amleth’s body, and the bodies of his oppressors, to tell the story. This becomes an issue in the context of a film that is pitched so high from the beginning, especially because the dialogue is utterly (and intentionally) devoid of charisma. Rather than escalating, The Northman, like a Norse myth, provides its driving rhythm from the outset, meaning the only way to add tension is to either increase the scale of the spaces we visit, or the speed with which we move from one to the next. During the first act, Eggers achieves this beautifully, shifting to a new and more expansive landscape whenever the action is about to get turgid, but that all changes in Iceland. To put it another way, the film often feels like a game, which is fine, but games depend on levels, on changes in space and difficulty, to maintain their flow.
This decision to stay in Iceland is all the more unusual in that it initially seems like just another stop-over on Amleth’s route to avenge his father and retake his kingdom. While Fjolnir did usurp Aurvandill, he was himself usurped soon after, meaning that he, like Amleth, is living in exile. I expected that Amleth would kill Fjolnir and then make his way back to his kingdom, so I was surprised when Eggers made the decision to remain in arguably the least atmospheric setting of the film. Of course, this may also be the trajectory of the myth, while this sustained third act, as turgid as it becomes, works well to drive the film’s hyper-masculinity towards its solipsistic limit. For, in a final twist, Amleth, whose “life of death” has only been justified by the prospect of redeeming his mother, discovers that Gudrun doesn’t need redemption. Worse, in she blithely informs him that Aurvandill was just another “lustful, blood-stained slaver,” precipitating a cognitive dissonance that he can ony resolve with the most hyper-phallic gesture so far – plunging his sword straight into the sleeping chest of his cousin Thorir.
Yet this is simultaneously an act of self-destruction, since Thorir is Amleth’s surrogate – as his peer, his cousin, and as the son of a king. Killing Thorir means killing himself, which in turn means leaning further into the solipsism of the myth and the film. That solipsism culminates with the final scene, in which Amleth and Fjolnir battle, entirely naked, on the cusp of a volcano. As they devolve into primal yells and roars, the topography of their bodies collapse into the igneous landscape, until they unform, dissolve, collapse into the mercurial world of myth. The pleasure of myth, for Eggers, is of evoking a time when the world qua masculine body was igneously unformed, capable of volatile transformations that can seem unavailable in a more diverse present. The Northman ends at this moment, in the cusp between the white male body and a broader mythic field, as Amleth decapitates Fjolnir at the precise instant he’s speared in the neck. They both waver for a second, on the verge of being subsumed back into Norse topology, and in that brief beat the film finally embraces what it always was: a paean to a bearded hyper-male whiteness that has less and less mythic buying-power in the present.