In The Northman, a new historical epic from filmmaker Robert Eggers, Viking carnage flows with an elegant, sometimes mischievous sense of showmanship. Not long after Amleth, the young son of a king (Ethan Hawke), has received his first instructions in the ways of Viking leadership, the king and his men are attacked by Amleth's uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). The insurgence captures Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and pursues the boy. He fights off his attackers, then runs, ducks, and hides throughout his village, as Eggers follows him with lateral camera movements, capturing the violence in a number of unbroken shots. This isn't the last blood that will flow, of course; Amleth will grow into a fearsome warrior (played as an adult by Alexander Skarsgård) hell-bent on revenge.
Somehow, during all of this mayhem, I thought of Wes Anderson. It's not that Anderson invented the fine art of the side-tracking shot or another composition he and Eggers both favor, where characters stare into the camera from the center of the frame, often symmetrically flanked by others. Eggers has a whole set of influences, cinematic and otherwise, that are quite apart from Anderson's own, equally idiosyncratic array of sources. But The Northman — a massive jump up in scale and budget following Eggers' A24-distributed indies The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019) — shares with Anderson's films a sense of a specific corner of a movie world being filled out, with meticulousness and confidence.
About a decade ago, this direction seemed open to a whole class of auteurs who first arrived on the film scene in the 1990s. Filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson, David O. Russell, Darren Aronofsky, and Alexander Payne were realizing their visions with bigger stars, bigger budgets and, amazingly, bigger hits. Many of those efforts culminated in the 2010s with films like Aronofsky's Noah (2014), Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and Russell's American Hustle (2013), which may not have been megaproductions by superhero standards, but looked (and grossed) like real Hollywood productions. Were '90s indies directors really taking over the modern industry?
The answer, of course, was no; they were still de-prioritized in favor of further tentpole swelling. So it's all the more remarkable to see Eggers pick up that torch — and it hasn't necessarily been easy. He's given several interviews where he discusses a painful post-production process with the studio, New Regency Productions, as he was not given the final cut on The Northman and had to make some concessions toward legibility and entertainment value (which, he stresses — whether out of tact or desire to sell his expensive movie — have resulted in a film that he's proud of).
Yet even this compromised vision of The Northman has real heft and vitality. A $90 million production really maximizes Eggers' distinctive style, here resulting in a 10th-century orgy of violence and melodrama that feels both immersive (as the 16th-century-set The Witch or the 19th-century-set The Lighthouse) and presentational. Eggers seems aware of what a movie-ish undertaking it is to shoot violence tearing through "realistic" Viking environments with graceful long takes and horror-movie bravado — or the inherent phoniness of recreating this stuff on film at all. For all of his obsessive research, Eggers is adapting a Viking folktale that may have inspired Shakespeare's Hamlet; he's putting on a hell of a show by his expensive campfire.
That mix of detail-oriented realism and wild swings into mysticism and animalistic combat isn't just a budgetary flex; it lends The Northman a thematic gravity that keeps it from floating off into self-indulgent silliness. Like The Witch and The Lighthouse, there's an otherworldliness around the edges of The Northman, sometimes an elusive feeling and sometimes creeping into the imagery — which includes dreams, hallucinations, and moments that blur the lines between those visions and the movie's reality. The Northman's tales of battle, valor, and treachery are heightened and mythologized by the characters as they happen, perhaps as a way of forging some understanding and acceptance of their world's capricious cruelties. (And there are many: Men, women, and children all meet gruesome, horrific ends here, even if Amleth attempts to focus his rage on fellow men and allies with an enslaved woman, played by the appropriately otherworldy Anya Taylor-Joy.) The movie does not seek to indict these ways of thinking; in its gnarly, riveting way, it invites understanding.
Hard as it may be to believe about a movie with such an inventive and constant array of disembowelings, there are times when it feels like Eggers is pulling back slightly, as if reluctant to betray the nasty brutishness of the time period by turning it into extended action sequences. This may be as close as he'll get to making an old-fashioned big-budget studio picture, not least because it's hard to picture anyone giving Eggers (or fellow new-class filmmakers like Ari Aster, Julia Ducournau, or Cory Finley) this much money without a piece of intellectual property firmly attached. It's why, even (or especially) with its particular cinematic flourishes, The Northman feels like something out of another era.