From the first shot of director Robert Eggers’s The Northman (2022), you know you’re not just watching a movie. You’re looking through a window to another time: a time when reality and mythology seamlessly blurred and violence ruled unchecked. Soon it’s not just a window. It’s a door. You’re transported entirely, equal parts fascinated and appalled but completely glued to your seat.
As in his previous features—The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019)—Eggers combines brutal historical realism with shades of pagan horror. But unlike those films, which largely play out in single locations with a limited cast, The Northman sprawls across decades and continents. We witness Viking raids and brutal battles. We journey across the sea on a slave ship. We fly across the sky on horseback with the Valkyries.
The scale of this film recalls a past era of Hollywood, when auteur filmmakers of the 1960s and early 1970s had rein to create massive art films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Holy Mountain (1973). Because, despite the blockbuster scale and the relentless action, this is undeniably an Eggers film in its weirdness, darkness, and attention to detail.
Some have critiqued The Northman’s hypermasculine ethos. You can’t deny the film’s machismo; within the opening minutes, we watch a father and son burping, farting, and barking like dogs as part of a pagan ritual.
But the film is not—as some seem to suggest—a tacit endorsement of male brutality. Eggers doesn’t need to hamfistedly stop the action and say “toxic masculinity is bad!” Instead, he simply drags Viking culture into the light of historical accuracy. It’s one thing to read about “raping and pillaging” in the clinical context of a history textbook. It’s another thing to see Norsemen climbing the walls, slitting the throats of the men, carrying off screaming women, and burning villagers alive. The bare facts, presented in all their realism, provide a critique in itself. We see the manifest evil of a violence-driven, androcentric world.
The plot pulls from the same legends as William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The story follows a fairly straightforward revenge plot. We’re motivated onward by injustice of a murdered brother, a stolen throne, and an exiled prince. But what keeps you in your seat isn’t just the story. It’s the telling.
In an interview with Vulture, Northman cinematographer Jarin Blaschke said he wants to make it “feel like the world exists well beyond the limits of the frame.” That’s exactly what this film does. In a time when so many fantasy movies feel thin and modern, this feels grounded, full, ancient.
If there’s any real critique to level against the film, it’s not a technical critique as much as a philosophical one. It’s the same critique I would apply to Eggers’s previous two features: a certain lack of heart. There’s an utter bleakness to the world of the film that goes beyond realism.
Even in the darkest of times, some glimpse of beauty, nobility, or joy still shines through. But in The Northman—as in The Lighthouse and The Witch—we find a harsh, stark world devoid of any redemptive quality. The only answer to death and violence comes through further death and violence.
The Northman is not an easy film. But it’s a worthwhile film, if only to appreciate the craft and attention to detail that bring its world to life. And let’s be honest—who doesn’t love a good naked volcano sword fight?
World and tone10.0/10
Willem Dafoe being Willem Dafoe10.0/10
- Director: Robert Eggers
- Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, Willem Dafoe, Björk
- Distributor: Focus Features, Universal Pictures
- Production Companies: Focus Features, Universal Pictures, Regency Enterprises, Perfect World Pictures, New Regency Productions, Square Peg