You would be forgiven for expecting more from The Northman. If you’re a fan of writer-director Robert Eggers, you might expect something weirder, along the lines of his previous triumphs in the horror/suspense genre. If you bought a ticket based on the trailers alone, knowing nothing of the celebrated auteur behind the film, you might expect something more straightforward: the gritty, action-adventure extravaganza promised by shots of Alexander Skarsgård catching spears midair. What you’ll get is neither the bold weirdness of Eggers’s previous efforts in the critically-acclaimed margins nor a clean strike into the blockbuster mainstream. Instead, The Northman wavers hesitantly within subversion before ultimately embracing its subject: the classical Hero’s Journey. More specifically, The Northman purports to represent a quintessential narrative of masculinity, in which homosocial codes of war and honor clash with the emotional bonds of love and family. As an Eggers fan myself, I expected him to twist this familiar narrative somehow, to upend and trouble it or at least pervert it a little. But I am left scratching my head at this intensely literal take on traditional Western masculinity, which nonetheless joins a host of other recent neo-medievalist and folk horror films in expressing a particular kind of Anthropocene angst by ambivalently upholding a premodern, preindustrial existence.
Perhaps it’s Eggers’s apparent desire to step into a more mainstream, big-budget lane that watered down his previously incisive examinations of masculinity. In The Witch (2015), a father’s righteous convictions threaten his family with starvation and eventually damn them all. In the deliciously bizarre The Lighthouse (2019), two men are forced to face their own ambiguous desires and fears in deep isolation, leading to violently erotic encounters with each other, a mermaid, and the lighthouse itself. As Eggers put it, “Nothing good happens when two men are trapped in a giant phallus.”
The Northman begins with a feint at subverting the ultra-masculine archetype of the Viking. In one of the first scenes, we witness young protagonist Prince Amleth (Skarsgård) initiated by his father into warrior-manhood, only to find that the proof of worthiness is how well one can belch or fart on command. But no amount of Willem Dafoe’s (admittedly delightful) crazy-eyed vamping troubles the classic story that unfolds from there: Just like his literary descendent Hamlet, Amleth trains himself to avenge his murdered father, loses himself to hatred, is forced to self-examine, then achieves his vengeance as a wiser man. His being sidetracked by love of a beautiful woman (Anya Taylor-Joy) is merely another expected trope. There is an attempt to complicate the narrative when, in the film’s best scene, Amleth’s mother (Nicole Kidman) reveals that his revered father was actually a brute and that she was his slave before she was his queen. But we nevertheless end up with Amleth completing his journey in melodramatic man-to-man combat. The dead Amleth is carried to Valhalla by a Valkyrie, his purpose fulfilled. The fact that both men are nude in this final fight is not a stripping-away of their vainglory but a celebration of their impossibly-chiseled, blood-and-mud-smeared physiques: the “thinking man’s” Marvel superheroes. Skarsgård’s trapezius muscles are so overbuilt, he literally cannot stand up straight and instead hunches in an effect both menacing and a little ridiculous.
Eggers’s succumbing to Viking nostalgia can be read as part and parcel of the recent surge of similarly nostalgic films that imagine a more epic, more authentic past, specifically a British and Scandinavian one. Last year’s The Green Knight also depicts a medieval warrior, this time an Arthurian knight, maturing through magical and emotional trials. The Last Duel (2021) transposes contemporary discourse around sexual assault onto poignantly antiquated trial-by-combat. Even nonhistorical films, like the many folk horror revivals which seem to critique this kind of nostalgia, also uphold it, betraying a growing contemporary longing for a romanticized European past. The spectacular Midsommar (2019), written and directed by Eggers’s peer in elevated horror, Ari Aster, both condemns the violence of the neo-Norse cult at its center but also celebrates its “healthier,” unflinching approach to grief and death compared to the suppressed Americans it victimizes.
R, 146 min. Wide release in theaters
Yet where Midsommar leaves us decidedly uncomfortable with our nostalgic longing (Twitter argues monthly over whether its ending is “good” or “bad, actually”), The Northman offers only the shadow of such nuance. If this trend reflects the more generalized desire of an alienated white American populace for reconnection with a spiritual/cultural heritage, what does The Northman reveal? It holds up a white prince dispossessed of his birthright, building himself into a killing machine, rebuked a little by the women around him who encourage him to love and cry, but ultimately dying a badass warrior in a volcano. Amleth dies ostensibly to protect his unborn children, proclaiming that he “choose[s] both” family and vengeance—the film literally trying to have it both ways. Eggers seems to be saying that contemporary (white) men can embrace the warrior ethos embodied in the Viking while maintaining their postmodern emotional enlightenment. But, in the end, just as Amleth favors Odin, god of war, and rejects the fertility god Freyr (whom he derides as the “god of erections”), what the film truly glories in is battle and death, not love and family.
So where does that leave us? The Northman is not a bad film. It has interesting visuals and offers a few surprises. Skarsgård gives an excellent performance, making the best out of some truly wooden lines. But I can’t help but be disappointed that Eggers took this politically and socially fraught figure, the Viking, and played it so straight. Bros who fantasize about the Viking “good old days” will find very little to challenge them in The Northman. And so ultimately, the film’s avowed moral and what it actually delivers are at odds, making this male power fantasy especially uneasy. Perhaps that’s why The Northman harps so much on the inescapability of fate. The belief in destiny alleviates fear, but it also disavows responsibility.