It’s days like this that remind me of just how little I really know about movies. You see, I’m here to talk about The Northman, the gore-drenched film directed by Robert Eggers concerning the revenge of a Viking prince. As I was turning the movie over in my head, I began wondering, “Are Viking films numerous enough to be considered a genre?”

As it turns out, they kind of are! We don’t quite have a time in cinema where Viking films reigned supreme at the box office. While gangster movies were very much a thing in the 1930s to 1940s, and westerns were the dominant genre for close to three decades, Vikings tended to pop their bearded heads up here and there almost at random.

And it bears mentioning that there were a lot of different flavors of cinematic Viking. You had the How to Train Your Dragon franchise (Vikings for the whole family). You had Erik the Viking (Vikings by way of Monty Python). You had The Vikings (Old-school Hollywood Vikings). You had The 13th Warrior (Big budget Vikings). You had Valhalla Rising (Sexy Vikings). Hell, you even had the Thor franchise, if you like a little MCU with your Norse mythology.

If you dig deep into a specific genre, you’ll eventually find examples of movies that embody the best of that genre. The argument could be made that Die Hard or Hard Boiled are the greatest action movies ever made. Is The Northman the greatest Viking movie ever made? Well…maybe? I know that it’s true to itself and true to an uncompromising style of theatrical film that might be vanishing.

For only a short while, Amleth is allowed a childhood. He’s a Viking prince. All he knows is that his mother Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) loves him and that he looks up to his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) as something a little less than a god. That’s solidified when his father returns from a brutal military campaign and the two take part in a psychedelic coming of age ceremony presided over by the shaman Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe).

Then, Amleth’s childhood is brought to a bloody end. His uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) resents his brother. He wants it all, the lands, the title, the prestige. So Aurvandill is struck down. Gudrun is carried off. Amleth flees into the wider world, and even as a boy, he makes a blood oath. He swears to avenge his father, save his mother, and smite his uncle.

Years pass and the adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) has found a new home. He’s a ravager. We see he’s awfully good at what he does when his clan overruns a village, pitilessly slaughtering the inhabitants and plundering their goods. But he’s never forgotten the oath he swore in childhood, and his heart has grown cold and dark. 

When Amleth learns Fjolnir lost his kingdom and lives in a small settlement in Iceland, he sees his chance. He disguises himself as a captured slave. He meets and falls in love with the crafty earth witch Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), He discovers a blade with an unquenchable thirst for blood. He thinks he’s ready.

After having seen The Witch and The Lighthouse, I remember wondering what a Robert Eggers film would look like with a serious budget. Now I know, as the budget for The Northman was reportedly in the neighborhood of $90 million. Does this mean Eggers has officially sold out and delivered a four-quadrant adventure designed to entertain the whole family? Oh, no. While The Northman might be considered his most accessible film, it’s several miles away from what most people would consider accessible.*

Eggers has what you might call a singular vision. Here, he’s made a film that feels like it was beamed directly from the long-dead skull of a Nordic bard. We have a hero** on a mission to see revenge done. We have an uncle scheming to claim and hold power.*** We have sprawling landscapes of desolate beauty. We have spectacularly bloody action scenes. Hell, we even have Bjork show up for a minute as a soothsayer. It all feels mythic and Eggers takes it dead seriously. That’s good, except that Eggers has always had a habit of lingering on shots for a very long time. He’s like Bizarro-world Michael Bay, and if some of those shots were trimmed in service to brevity, the pacing would feel a bit less sluggish at times. I’ll take it, considering Eggers’ gift for creating a very specific world littered with bizarre details that feel accurate. While some of his shots are too long, there were several moments when the camera held on an image and I thought, “What in the hell is that? Oh. Oh, I get it!” 

That uncompromising seriousness is solidified by the screenplay written by Eggers and Icelandic author Sjon. The script unfolds like an epic poem in the style of Beowulf, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. Don’t get me wrong, there are moments of extreme ponderousness, where Almeth grimly looks to the skies and monologues about his hunger for vengeance. It’s a little goofy, but the flip side is that it creates the feeling of being told a tale that’s been handed down for generations and likely altered in the telling. Plus, how can you not adore a movie where characters are named awesome things like “Aurvandil War-Raven” or “Fjolnir the Brotherless?” 

Eggers’ cast understood the assignment and all turn in performances that feel appropriately gritty and legendary. I appreciated that Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga is literally a crafty witch with magical powers. She’s thinking five steps ahead of everyone else, and you get the feeling that had Almeth not hacked everybody to pieces, she would have dispatched them in a far more horrific manner. Alexander Skarsgard isn’t playing a good guy, per se, but he’s trying to do the right thing within the morality of his time. Almeth lives in a world devoid of compassion, where strength and will are the only things respected. He’s a killing machine, and Skarsgard wisely gives us a glimpse beneath Almeth’s scarred surface to show the scared little boy who desperately misses his father. I also liked Willem Dafoe, providing perhaps one minute of necessary comic relief, and Nicole Kidman playing a noble who’s more than she seems.

I thought pretty seriously about titling this review The Blood Feast, since that’s kind of what Eggers has made with The Northman. The film is hyper-violent and more than a little full of itself. It’s also the product of a unique vision, and I’m amazed and pleased that a studio invested $90 million to see that vision realized. We need more of that, and The Northman just might be the Vikingiest Viking movie ever made.


*He’s the guy that made a puritanical horror show and a movie about isolation and mermaids by way of H.P. Lovecraft. A bunch of dudes swinging swords around feels like it would be easy to get into, until you actually start watching the movie.

**Perhaps not the best way to label Almeth. Let’s go with “protagonist” instead.***Yeah, The Northman is basically Hamlet only a) far bloodier and b) the protagonist never thinks about killing himself. Same goes for The Lion King.

***The Northman is basically Hamlet only a) far bloodier and b) the protagonist never thinks about killing himself. Same goes for The Lion King.

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.