Tarzan the Eric Northman. Robert Eggers’ “authentic” Viking flick is a pagan-chic melange of exploitation splatter and grisly characterisation, designed to impress upon us just how uncivilised things were back then. But also kind of great, right? Because people were freer and more instinctive and more aligned with the old gods. And shit. Eggers’ pictures, with their unhealthily heathen hues, appear to be an embrace/warning of the madness and ecstasy that comes with such release. Surely no right-minded person would wish to end up like Robert Pattison in The Lighthouse, nor Alexander Skarsgård here, even if they were granted the latter’s magic pecs in the bargain. It follows, then, that you don’t need to be a right-minded person to clutch his works to your shrivelled bosom. Hence The Church of Satan endorsing The Witch.
Amleth: For now, I will haunt this family like a hungry corpse returned from the dead.
Which is a pretty good movie. Although, as Jay Dyer notes, it’s less a vindication of the pagan way than a representation of “two versions of pagans” (the other being Calvinist Gnosticism). And again, if you’re enamoured of the kind of stuff that’s all in the average incantation of an Eggers witch, you’ve got serious problems of the sort Anton LaVey would probably happily nurture. Dyer’s of the view the promotion of nature-worship religions serves the green agenda, which it probably does, although these things are at best incremental, really. More of Eggers’ movies – perhaps appropriately, for someone hailing from NYC – deal with the horrors of nature than the beauty therein, but he’s evidently enervated by the nostalgic lure of periods in the misty past when we were more attuned to its antic ebbs and flows.
Whether Eggers’ much-vaunted application of “historical” detail is a hiding to nothing is debatable, however. A lot of time spent ensuring the stitching is perfect on period wear that relates to an Old Norse poem that doesn’t exist and may have been, if it did, set circa tenth century. Even assuming the details are right, a tale beginning in AD 895 would be variably – depending on where you’re counting from – more like the equivalent of 1900? Or 105 BC? Factoring in a potential thousand years of invented time. Generally, Eggers lore encourages the fostering of a pre-civilised appreciation of the world, per – ironically, given his whole pagan bit – current scientific-historical canon. The possibility that this design is masking what may, hitherto, have been golden or enlightened ages wouldn’t occur to him.
Amleth: It’s a nightmare.
Olga: Then you might wake up.
Amleth: It’s a nightmare for them.
But let’s not kid ourselves about Eggers’ relative trueness to his vision either. He’s said there were studio struggles involved in the production, so perhaps he was against Alexander’s Hollywood AD waxed pecs and such dialogue as the above (you can type this shit, Rupert…) Given the standard lifestyle options, where you’re likely to be the victim of indiscriminate peasant-murdering as target practice while you’re out fishing, everyone alive in this age is inevitably permanently traumatised, or psychotic, or both.
Except for the ones who somehow have a sufficiently modern sensibility (or sensitivity) as Amleth (Alex) and Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy). They’re fully equipped and prepared mentally to enact a carefully strategised assault, whereby all their victims believe sorcery is afoot (Olga from the Volga is a sorceress, a Slavic one at that, but the reason everyone’s struck with terror is down to her rather prosaically spiking their broth with magic mushrooms and Amleth making an ornate ritual frieze from some victims’ remains).
Queen Gudrún: In the end, you’re just like your father. Evil begets evil.
The Northman, Eggers’ take on Hamlet – he’d doubtless argue Hamlet is Shakespeare’s take on Amleth; whether we’d have a Northman without Shakey’s popularisation is questionable, though – is more successful and coherent than Justin Kurzel’s also-bloodthirsty Macbeth a few years back, but its similarly broken down to its bare essentials. In this case, though, having broken it down, Eggers proceeds to build it back up again, not with plot and character, but mood and mud and blood. The Lighthouse, for all its faults, at least carried a lack of certainty – at first, at any rate – over quite where it was heading. You know from the outset this is a revenger, so everything else is period couture. Which means blood, sweat, bawdry, hurly burly and primitivism.
There’s a high old time here, then, of rapin’ and murderin’ and pillagin’ and cuttin’ off noses. Along with much babbling, grunting and oath making. At times, it’s a bit like watching Gilliam’s Life of Brian jailer for two-and-a-half hours, particularly when Willem Dafoe’s fart-crazed wise-fool shaman is on the scene (which admittedly, isn’t for long). Björk pops up as the Icelandic equivalent of the Swedish chef, but at least her accent isn’t the Nordic equivalent of Dick Van Dyke (towards which some of them here drift here).
Along the way, Almeth embarks on vision quests and actual fantasy quests; whether we’re supposed to ascribe literalism – and authenticity, presumably – to his encounter with the zombie Mound Dweller (Ian Whyte), I don’t know; the general tone of stricken, supernatural foreboding suggests it makes little difference either way, what with incessantly oppressive weather (those elements – they sure are bastards!) and a soundtrack of constipated choral fatigue.
Queen Gudrún: Your sword is long.
Eventually, Almeth, who fled the island of Hrafnsey as a youngster, back when he looked a wee bit like Milla Jovovich, returns as a pectorally-afflicted slave to his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Who murdered Almeth’s father – and Fjolnir’s brother – King Aurvandill War Raven (Ethan Hawke looks like as desiccated as Sean Harris but significantly less terrifying). And wedded his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Protracted labour, suffering, revenge and confrontation follow.
Amleth: It’s not my time. I will die in battle.
Every so often, Eggers lobs something into the mix that catches one’s attention – and I don’t just mean disembowelling or running a noseless man through his noselessness with a sword. Dafoe’s Heimir leads young Almeth and dad on a ceremonial trip where they go full feral and bark like dogs. Angry Amleth headbutts an opposing player (Hafþór Július Björnsson) to death on football pitch, in clear homage to Escape to Victory. Wicked mumsie, on reuniting with Almeth, first goes all incest-happy, before admitting her complicity in Aurvandill’s murder and his attempted murder; when they next meet, she has a good stab at killing him. Kidman’s extremely convincing as a horrible, heartless harridan, doubtless from direct experience. Finally, Fjölnir, a tad upset that wifey and son Gunnnar (Elliot Rose) have been slain, announces “I will meet you at the gates of Hel!” and it isn’t long before they’re confronting each other in their starkers amid some lava flows. Much like Obi-Wan, Amleth has the higher ground, on account of Alex being about 6’4”, and lops Fjölnir’s head off, before obligingly expiring himself, off to Valhalla on his Norse horse.
Olga: There is now a living thread that binds us.
This isn’t a movie where you take away much in performance terms. Skarsgård is there to flex and gurn; he may as well be Arnie for all the dramatic import he carries. Gustav Lindh (Riders of Justice) is an effective little shit as Fjölnir’s elder son (he’s the one who ends up literally heartless). I wasn’t at all sure about Taylor-Joy’s accent, but hey, I’m sure its flawless. As I suggested above, the impulse behind this kind of pagan plundering strikes me as rather false, designed to imbue upon us the idea that, deep down, we are all essentially savages of relative and inconsequential moral mettle. To which end, someone somewhere will demand and devour, with entrails, a four-hour cut of The Northman, per Midsommar. Hopefully it will include all the outtakes where Alex bumps his noggin on the door frame every time he enters or leaves a room.
First published by Now in Full Color on 14/05/22.