THE NORTHMAN is Eggers at his best and worst

THE NORTHMAN is Eggers at his best and worst

Hello kings and kweens.

This is a review for The Northman. The Northman is a historical action drama film directed by Robert Eggers. I had a strange relationship with this movie but ultimately I think it was good. I want to lead with that because a lot of my thoughts about this movie are going to be me complaining about it, and I don’t want to detract from my overall view. I think there’s something to gain by seeing this movie. There are two things I want to talk about this movie. I want to talk about its storytelling. Then I want to talk about why I consider this movie to be an anti-action film.

Background

I think a lot of my thoughts about The Northman will become clear if I take a moment to talk about my relationship with its director Robert Eggers. Eggers came onto the filmmaking scene as a polarizing figure and he has retained that reputation with each of his films. All three of his movies — The Witch, The Lighthouse, and now The Northman — have received high critical acclaim, but general audiences have derided his work as arthouse trash. That is the central dynamic in all of Eggers’ films. I think a lot of the reasons why people like him are inherently why so many others find his work impenetrable. It’s because Eggers really cares about the minutia of filmmaking that most people definitely do not care about at all.

The best example of this is in his first film The Witch. That movie opens with a disclaimer about the dialogue being intended to replicate how people actually spoke in the time period it depicts — in the late 1600s. This disclaimer effectively conveys what Eggers is thinking about his audience: if you don’t understand what his characters are saying, that is by design and if you feel left behind by that creative decision he does not care. That is exactly the reaction The Witch received when it was released to the public. Critics praised its accurate portrayal of the period and palpable sense of place in time thanks largely to its arcane dialogue delivered effortlessly by its capable cast. On the other hand, general audiences rejected The Witch because it was confusing and anticlimactic — both of which I believe are the influence of its unusual dialogue and commitment to historical accuracy.

As isolating as Eggers’ love for history may be, his obsession for the past bleeds over to how he approaches the visual aesthetic of his films which is why they look so unique. Some period pieces may emulate a previous time period through the use of heavy color correction, but Eggers has demonstrated he is willing to go a step further. For The Lighthouse — a film shot in 4:3 and black and white — the director of photography talked to The Hollywood Reporter about how the production made modifications to “off menu” Panavision products to emulate film celluloid that doesn’t even exist anymore but was commonly used in the 1920s. I believe they also custom built some film equipment to replicate the functionality — or lack thereof — of those old cameras so the movement of the camera in the film wasn’t even capable of what we see in modern film today. Eggers wanted to make a period piece and that commitment extended to inconveniencing his own crew with bulky equipment. That might sound like eye-roll nerdy crap, but you can’t deny The Lighthouse has a distinct look unlike any other film and that is generally true of all of Eggers’ films. That’s the give and take of Robert Eggers. His love for history is what makes him unique but also what makes him a challenging creator for general audiences.

As true as that dynamic may be, I think the more isolating element of Eggers’ approach is he is simply bad at capitalizing on dramatic tension. I haven’t seen many people talk about this and I think it’s because they refuse to believe it. It doesn’t seem possible that Eggers can be so skilled at framing a shot and making his films so beautiful to look at, but the experience of watching them can be very dull. I don’t think he can navigate the dramatic tension he builds. I would refer to him as someone who doesn’t quite grasp what I call “the filmic language.” There is a sluggishness to his films in the broad strokes. I think this weakness of Eggers’ is self-evident if you’re paying attention, but if not, I invite you to reconsider both The Witch and The Lighthouse and notice how both those movies build tension for the entirety of their runtime, then the moment there is some kind of release the movie ends almost immediately. I think this is also why general audiences consider his work “boring” because there are a lot of flat moments where nothing really happens. He builds an event but doesn’t pay it off until the end because the moment he does that, he doesn’t know where to go next. A24 bros call this “building atmosphere” or “being patient” which are rosy variants of saying something is boring. He’s like a dog chasing a car, where even if he caught it he wouldn’t know what to do with it next.

I have come to view Eggers’ disproportional strength for aesthetics as an indication that his work is shallow. It has the capacity to make an incredible first impression, but that quickly wanes over time. Once the wow factor of the aesthetics wears off, there’s nothing left to sink your teeth into. I had this realization with The Lighthouse — a film I reviewed on this channel and gave a 5 out of 5 because I really enjoyed my experience seeing it in the theater. However, I have returned to that film and recognized there isn’t really a plot or even a consistent aesthetic. It’s a smattering of 20th century horror influences deployed with no real purpose. The movie hints at the prospect of developing its main character or the context of his circumstance — and it wouldn’t take much to make that film feel more than a tech demo — but it doesn’t do either of those things. I still respect the technical elements of the film, but I have a hard time watching it now because it feels so hollow. Oddly enough I have the inverse relationship with The Witch. I thought that movie was dull throughout my first watch, but now I can appreciate its technical accomplishments and I think the historical accuracy adds value in that story. I like it when films serve as a kind of virtual tourism and The Witch is an authentic transportation to the late 1600s, which distinguishes it from The Lighthouse. The Lighthouse has enough fantastical elements it doesn’t have the same historical tourism appeal.

The point to all this is for me to express the difficulty I have saying anything definitive about The Northman. Eggers’ love for historical accuracy and aesthetics at the expense of filmic storytelling is absolutely a present dynamic in this film. I feel like overall I enjoyed it this time, but that might change — as it has twice before. So forgive me if I spend this whole review complaining about something I think I like.  

Premise

The Northman is based on a centuries-old folklore myth about a man named Amleth who sees his father killed and he vows revenge. This is the same story that served as the inspiration for William Shakespeare when he wrote Hamlet. A lot of this story is already engrained in our culture because it is such an old story and the influence Hamlet has had on our culture, but I think there are enough deviations in The Northman to make it feel fresh. I wouldn’t call The Northman subversive, but we all know revenge stories never go how they are envisioned and that is the case with this story too.

The main character is a man named Amleth. At the beginning of the film, we see the betrayal that drives his bloodlust, then the rest of the movie is him seeking out the murderer of his father. It’s a straight-forward premise but the one thing I wanted to say in this section is The Northman is part of the long tradition of tricking audiences with its marketing materials. The trailer for The Northman makes it out to be Norse Lord of the Rings with epic battles not unlike Helm’s Deep. That is not representative of this film at all. The Northman is a very small-scale film where most of the grander aspects of the story are frontloaded in the first 30 minutes — I imagine this was in an effort to make it more marketable to general audiences. Most of this movie takes place on a farm. There are no kings or lords. There is no siege sequence or battle scene. There’s not even any complex political plots or machinations. This movie has less going on than other revenge films like Gladiator or Kill Bill. Fewer characters, fewer subplots, it’s all pretty straight forward. If that’s not what you thought it’d be, adapt your expectations accordingly.  

Storytelling

In the background I referenced Eggers’ has shown he has a weakness at executing on the dramatic tension in his films and that is most apparent in The Northman’s storytelling. I’m using the term storytelling to refer to the movie’s ability to establish its characters, their motivations, and the stakes of their actions as we observe what happens in this cinematic world. The Northman is bad at all of that. At no point in this film did I feel invested in Amleth’s story and I think that’s a combination of the lack of character and the stoic plotting of the narrative.

The lack of character is something I feel bad complaining about because I recognize this is meant to be more of a myth than a traditional action story. I’ve seen people draw comparisons between The Northman and last year’s The Green Knight which is a similar film adapting a centuries-old folklore for the modern day. While it is true both films are adapting stories that intentionally do not characterize their main character to make the story more relatable, I think there is a difference between the execution of both.

For example, both The Northman and The Green Knight have an early scene where we are meant to understand the main character has some fondness for a patriarchal figure and that relationship drives their main goal of the story. In The Green Knight this happens when Sir Gawain talks to the king and in The Northman it is when Amleth talks to his father. The Green Knight approaches this scene and understands it needs to accomplish something for the audience. The audience needs to feel connected to Sir Gawain’s quest, so the conversation he has with the king is intentionally open-ended. The king asks Gawain to tell a story about himself so he can understand who he is, and Gawain admits he has no story. The audience is invited to see Gawain as a blank slate, someone we can impose our own personality and sensibilities onto and associate this character with ourselves. The Northman does not accomplish this, and I don’t think it ever intended to, but the difference in execution makes the audience’s relationship to the film very different. The Northman depicts a scene of young Amleth and his father going through a bizarre Norse-themed coming-of-age ritual. They scream out their animalistic strength in a fiery hut. There is some psychedelic imagery and we get to see Willem Dafoe acting like a weirdo, which is all fine, but we don’t gain a connection to the film or its characters. I’m certain this ritual is historically accurate. I can even make the argument there is some unique value in this scene because there likely hasn’t been something like this committed to the eternal memory of film. Maybe we should be thankful Eggers’ has this love for history so he can immortalize it in this artistic depiction. However, the downside is I felt very isolated by this whole sequence. I simply have no point of connection with a character who bonded with his father by pretending to be a wolf and attempting to embody his bloodlust as an animalistic fiend. And don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of things in a lot of movies where I have no direct point of connection, but typically these types of moments carry a more intimate connection with the human beings depicted in the scene or some metaphorical event that we can impose our own experience onto. The Northman’s narrative beats are so fixated on capturing the brutality of the era that these moments when we’re supposed to connect with the film are never successful. In an academic sense, I can believe Amleth and his father are connected to one another but I didn’t feel that. It goes without saying, when Amelth sees the betrayal of his father, I really didn’t feel any of the injustice or rage he did, which I view as a failure of the film’s storytelling.

Eggers’ commitment to historical accuracy is a problem for much of the first third of this film, where we see Amleth’s life post-royalty as what was likely the case for many Norsemen in 900 AD. He’s roving the countryside with these band of berserkers who loot and pillage local villages as their way to stay alive. While this is certainly accurate to the time period, it is a startling depiction of the wanton violence and amorality of feudal life. We see Amleth enjoy the thrill of battle while he effortlessly slaughters the town guard of some random village. He doesn’t personally partake in some of the more devious events — like raping young women prisoners, or taking all the young men, including children, and burning them alive in a house — so maybe that amount of distance from actual evil is intended to prevent the audience from disliking Amleth, but this was a major motivation for why I did not build any attachment to his character for the entirety of the film. Maybe if the film wasn’t so eager to depict the worst parts of the past this wouldn’t have been as big of an issue for me. Or if the prologue sequence was more successful at laying the foundation for a personal connection to this story, it could’ve overcome the gruesome elements, but it wasn’t and it didn’t.

At the same time, I feel like I can’t dislike The Northman for being too historically accurate. It is true my viewing experience was negatively impacted because of these creative decisions, but in retrospect it is unique that this movie is so authentic with its depiction. There are not a lot of movies like that, so I think it maintains some value in that way, even if it makes the film less “enjoyable” to watch. I don’t agree that watching movies always needs to be enjoyed. So on one hand, I appreciate The Northman for being original and different, but I also didn’t like watching huge portions of it.

The bigger issue with the storytelling is its stoic plotting of narrative beats. It feels like the events are doled out without building how what comes next is motivated by what happened before. I’ll couch my analysis in this screenwriting wisdom that’s been reposted on Tik Tok recently from the writers of South Park Trey Parker and Matt Stone. There was a lecture they gave where they shared the insight that every story beat should be separated by the words “BUT” or “THEREFORE.” Each narrative beat should be the result of what happened before it. For example, Amleth is groomed for the throne BUT his father is murdered THEREFORE he is forced to leave his homeland. This is a good example of plotting. However, the South Park writers said the worst thing you can do is to separate beats with the word “THEN.” As in, Amleth leaves his homeland, THEN becomes a berserker, THEN attacks a local town, THEN sees a seer who tells his fortune, and etc. I don’t think the South Park writers are particularly renowned for their writing ability, but their view is useful to describe why The Northman feels so boring despite being about something as exciting as a plot for revenge. The movie doesn’t feel like it needs to justify its course of events to the audience, and I experienced that by feeling bored for a lot of it. I had no reason to be actively engaged because things just sort of happened removed from the consequences of other scenes.

The worst example of this was in the second half of the movie where Amleth finds the target of his revenge and he has an opportunity to kill him, but he remembers the fortune that was told to him earlier in the movie had a specific description of how he would die. Amleth realizes he is meant to die under specific circumstances while achieving his revenge, but his current situation doesn’t match what fate foretold so he decides to not take his revenge in that moment. From a storytelling perspective, I found this moment infuriating. I would be willing to accept if Amleth tried to get his revenge but his attempt was thwarted for some reason. As if the great threads of fate prevented an event from happening before it was supposed to. That would make some sense. To see our main character — who is supposedly driven by the singular purpose of achieving revenge — just decide he’s not going to do it, it felt like all the momentum of the movie was sapped away.

Once again, there is this dynamic between historical accuracy and what’s rewarding for a modern film audience. I can believe a man like Amleth in 900 AD was so guided by his religious belief in fate, that he would radically alter his life’s purpose based on what a fortune teller told him. In that way, The Northman is a unique accomplishment for its accurate depiction of the time period. But again, I can’t deny I reacted so negatively to this moment it made me hate the movie. In retrospect, maybe I’ll come to appreciate it more but while sitting in the theater I do remember thinking “this movie is jerking me around.” It felt like we were finally getting somewhere. All the tension was built up and we were getting closer to some sort of release or mid-film peak, and now we were stating over. This is the exact problem Eggers has had in all of his work and it is particularly maddening in The Northman.

Anti-action film

What I just described is my general thesis for why I consider The Northman an anti-action film. I’ve used this term to describe Christopher Nolan’s work because he uniquely makes action movies where the action sequences are the worst part of the movie. Watch The Dark Knight and ask yourself what are the most exciting and memorable scenes in the movie? It’s The Joker’s introduction to the mob bosses. It’s the crashing the donor party. It’s the interrogation scene. It’s the quips between Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent. It’s when we realize there’s an orchestrated attack on elected officials. No one thinks of The Dark Knight and fondly remembers Batman awkwardly fumbling with thugs in a night club. You probably don’t even remember that scene but every time I see that movie I think “they could’ve just cut this whole thing out.” I think Nolan’s unique strength is cerebral musings and why his dialogue is so strong. For Robert Eggers, I think he is such an accomplished visual artist he can make the less eventful moments look incredible but for some reason that doesn’t translate when something more exciting is happening.

For example, in the trailer you can see that shot of Amleth unsheathing his sword and walking forward as he’s about to cause more carnage. The movement of his body, the fitness of his physique, and the smooth dolly tracking of his movement, creates this incredible impression of lethality for his character. He looks threatening and menacing. It leaves an impression on who Amleth is at that moment in the movie. Then a few seconds later when he actually has to attack someone, we lose all of that. The camera struggles to fit all the action in frame. It overcorrects then lags behind, and the choreography looks a little too controlled. I think it’s because the film chooses to show every action sequence in a mostly uninterrupted single shot. It’s not Children of Men level of showing off, but there are no quick cuts or snap pans or anything like that. The cameraman is as much a character in the fight sequences as the actors, so you’re not always getting the best perspective to see what’s happening. I think this is meant to make the film feel more grounded. You don’t get lost in the geometry of a scene and you don’t get stimuli overload. You can see exactly what happens in each fight and there are some benefits to that style but the most apparent impact is it takes away the excitement from these sequences.

Once again, this central dynamic I’ve talked about this whole video reappears. I think the movie is successful at grounding its action sequences in reality. Those fight sequences are scaled down and… likely historically accurate. If the creative choice was driven by a desire to be accurate then they nailed it. I just think it looks kind of bad. It doesn’t feel like an actual fight between two people trying to murder the other person or save themselves, it feels like theater combat with wooden swords smacking people who are obviously actors. That’s the problem with highly choreographed work, especially if you try to do a lot of it over a long cut. The actors don’t want to screw something up later in the sequence, so they focus on getting it right rather than making it look real. All of these fight sequences were distracting to me for that reason. More importantly they didn’t feel exciting. They felt staged. So again, all that dramatic tension built throughout the rest of the film is fumbled and put to waste.

However, as I mentioned in the premise section, this movie is really not an action movie. The action sequences are not at all the focus of the film so the fact they’re bad doesn’t really matter. This movie is much more about the mythic storytelling surrounding this folklore hero who’s entrenched in a quest for revenge. The best parts of this movie are when it has something unique or meaningful in its depiction of that myth — which I can say without spoiling anything, it definitely does have a lot going for it on that front. To give one quick example, that’s not central to the plot so I don’t think it’s a spoiler. The premise of this movie makes you assume Amleth’s quest for revenge will necessarily include regaining the kingdom of his father and becoming a king himself. But in the first section of the movie, the audience learns this betrayal of Amleth’s father was for nothing. The target of Amleth’s revenge was stripped of his title almost immediately. This guy is not a corrupt king but rather a lowly farmer in the middle of nowhere. Amleth isn’t seeking revenge for his rightful throne, it is pure resentment. I thought that was an interesting twist. It’s frankly more honest than most revenge stories which try to dress it up as poetic justice in some way. This film is much grittier with the reality of its main character. I think that creative decision to downplay the importance of this revenge is emblematic of the tone of the film.

Closing Thoughts

The Northman is the type of movie where what you see is what you get. Robert Eggers has made nothing but slow, tension-building films with a bent for historical accuracy. The Northman is another one of those movies. It is not an action movie. I wouldn’t even call it “epic,” I didn’t find the events of the story to be complex and the movie isn’t notably long either. It is another Eggers’ movie, this time set in 900 AD Scandinavia. There are a lot of things that make it great because it is so uniquely historically accurate. It is uniquely beautiful; I think they did a great job location scouting and getting the smaller details of what Amleth’s life would be like. But what makes it unique is also what makes it challenging compared to other modern films. It’s not the most approachable film. It’s not an exciting revenge story. It’s slow and understated. It still has a climax and some exciting moments, but it’s not competing with other movies you might be thinking of when you hear “medieval era revenge film.” This is a Robert Eggers film. It’s like his other movies, of which there are no real comparisons. If you haven’t liked his past work, this one won’t change your mind.

And the strange thing is, I think I’ve spent enough time with his work that I think I do appreciate it now. I would give The Northman a 4 out of 5. That is a score that requires a lot of qualifications, but I’m somewhat confident that is how I feel. I found myself very frustrated by a lot of this movie, but I can’t deny its technical beauty. The fact he could retain the authenticity of the story even with the pressure of a big budget is incredible. I also enjoyed the deviations Eggers’ took with the myth to make it more interesting than the classic tale. This is absolutely not a movie I would recommend to someone unless I had a longer conversation with them about their interests and what they’re looking for, but if you are capable of enjoying a movie like The Northman, it is pretty good.

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