When Eggers first released “The Witch” his brand of horror was deemed, backhandedly, as “elevated.” The New England filmmaker delivered genre-breaking frights with a fresh devil-may-care glee for the sinister that pushed the sonic and visual possibilities of supernatural angst. With “The Northman,” Eggers uses slicker aesthetics and broader emotions, played out over a grander scale, with his familiar interests in the inherent weirdness that courses through ancient mythology. It’s the tale of Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a hulking, enraged Viking warrior prince who’s seeking retribution for a lost kingdom in Scandinavia. Modern audiences will know this legend by its well-known English adaptation, Hamlet, recalling unbreakable Amleth’s resolve, as unforgiving as the punishing landscape, to earn back his usurped crown.
This isn’t a prototypical hero’s journey replete with a dashing royal, however. Amleth occupies a different, harsher kill-or-be-killed era where no higher honor can befall a king than to die by the blade. His father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), recently returned from war, damaged and wounded, worships this reality by preparing his young son for the eventuality of bloodshed: a carnal ritual taking place in a smoky, otherworldly cavern that involves a mystical invocation to the ancestors led by Heimir the Fool (an unhinged Willem Dafoe), whereby Amleth and Aurvandill whoop and holler on all fours like wolves. In the world of “The Northman” we’re all just rabid animals occupying flabby sacks of human skin. The only obligations we have are primal: to avenge one’s father, and to defend one’s mother and kingdom. It’s an oath similarly taken by his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and ignored by his uncle, the imposing black-bearded Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who, of course, brings tragedy to young Amleth’s life by killing his father—forcing him to far-flung shores where he becomes a bitter, musclebound warrior.
Much of the film, lensed by Jarin Blaschke and edited by Louise Ford (Eggers’ collaborators on “The Lighthouse” and “The Witch”), rests on a polished visual flair, exercising more camera movement than usual for the director. A vicious sequence involving Amleth and a band of skin-clad Vikings, covered in bear-pelt headdresses, edited with razor-sharp clarity by Ford, sees the pack methodically rampaging a village for kills. The elaborate tracking shot accompanying the scene feeds the camera’s delirious appetite for flesh with bodies bathed in blood, and the bone-chilling macho screams emanating from insatiable men. One shot, recalling Elem Klimov’s antiwar flick “Come and See,” finds a burning house filled with wailing villagers as a backdrop to Amleth’s unflinching gaze into the camera. Unlike Klimov’s film, this isn’t the image of a boy horrifically marked by war. This is a savage and defiant man fueled by conflict and gore.