The Northman Is an Honorable Failure

I wanted to love Robert Eggers’s follow-up to The Witch and The Lighthouse, but maybe a big-budget Viking saga just isn’t the right fit for a wonderful weirdo like him?

All through The Northman, it seems as if the Viking epic was directed by someone working in the style of Robert Eggers but without his ability to zero in on the specific shots and scenes to make a compelling vision of the past come alive. (Focus Features)

I was so looking forward to The Northman, I’m bewildered to report that it didn’t dazzle me, that I gazed on this Viking epic largely unmoved. A serious disappointment.

And I like Viking movies. If I can get decent longboats, berserker fights, vengeful slaves, axe-throwing, and the chilling moan of those crazy goat horns, I don’t even mind if stuff gets a little cheesy. Bonus points for Ernest Borgnine in The Vikings (1958) yelling “Odin!” as he leaps into a pit of ravenous wolves, sword in hand.

Possibly others don’t share my enthusiasm, since the film’s anemic release is generating reports on its dire failure with the public:

Backed by Universal’s Focus Features, The Northman is Robert Eggers’ first launch into studio filmmaking and mainstream Hollywood, with the director’s previous projects, The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2019), making waves on a much smaller scale as indie horrors. Unfortunately, The Northman’s opening weekend was a box office bomb, bringing in only $12 million domestically — $23 million in total globally — against Eggers’ quoted $70-90 million budget.

Of course, it could be people just didn’t care for this Viking movie.

The Northman is about a glowering, muscle-bound man-mountain named Prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård, son of Stellan) who as a boy witnesses the killing of his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), and the abduction of his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), by the king’s betraying half-bastard brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang). Amleth vows revenge.

If that sounds vaguely like Hamlet, it’s by design. It seems Shakespeare adapted his play from old Norse sagas, and director Robert Eggers is a stickler for them and Norse history in general, hiring scholars to fact-check him throughout the development process.

But first Amleth has to escape, grow up, and channel his hate, “which runs like a freezing river through my veins,” into the berserker lifestyle. Finally, he resumes his quest for revenge, disguising himself as a slave so he can be shipped off with the others to the Iceland settlement run by King Fjölnir, who by now has already lost the kingdom he usurped in Norway.

For the first time in an Eggers film, the casting is a distracting problem. In The Witch, the luminous Anya Taylor-Joy in her star-making debut led an inspired ensemble, and in The Lighthouse, Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe gave performances of awe-inspiring conviction in impossibly demanding roles.

But in The Northman, dull brooder Skarsgård makes you realize how highly watchable Arnold Schwarzenegger was in Conan the Barbarian (1982), which just happens to be one of Eggers’s inspirations, along with Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev. Even more frustrating is the fact that frequently standing next to Skarsgård is a far more scintillating actor, Anya Taylor-Joy, who’s given very little to do as Olga, a witchy slave captured in the raid on the Land of Rus by the gang of Vikings that included Amleth.

Once in Iceland, Amleth and Olga sneak off frequently behind hillocks to plan their slave revolt. Olga says darkly, “Your strength breaks men’s bones. I have the cunning to break their minds.”

Which sounds pretty cool, but unfortunately you sit through the entire film waiting for her to do some mind-breaking, and she never does. She mixes up a batch of hallucinogenic soup at one point, but that’s the extent of it.

There’s something so basically off about the whole project, I can only wonder: What happened to you, Robert Eggers? Cowriting with Sjón, an Icelandic poet and novelist, Eggers brings his usual obsession with historical accuracy to bear on the film, cross-checking his script and locations and costumes and props and everything else against what leading scholars say about the North Atlantic at the turn of the tenth century. Eggers’s obsession with minutia led to wild choices like Alexander Skarsgård wearing the same pair of boots throughout the entire shoot, repaired with strips of leather when they fell apart.

Eggers enthused, “More impressive than the Vikings doing all the things they did was that they did it in, like, moccasins.”

We must laud these excesses, this fixation on weird-but-true history, because it thwarts the typical Disneyfication of older, stranger worlds that we tend to see in Hollywood. And this approach worked wonderfully in Eggers’s triumphant debut, The Witch, and in his even more daring follow-up film, The Lighthouse. But somehow here it’s run him aground.

All through The Northman, it seems as if the Viking epic was directed by someone working in the style of Robert Eggers but without his ability to zero in on the specific shots and scenes to make a compelling vision of the past come alive. In The Witch, it’s those handheld shots from the back of the family wagon, roughly sharing the point of view of the children as their Puritan community’s big wooden gates shut on them, consigning them to their fates in the terrifying seventeenth-century wilderness. In The Lighthouse, it’s those first black-and-white shots (in a vintage, square-shaped aspect ratio) of that godforsaken rock off the coast of 1890s New England.

The Northman has all the lavish resources studios can command, and it looks extraordinarily handsome throughout, shot by the same gifted cinematographer as Eggers’s previous films, Jarin Blaschke. It’s got gorgeous scenery, wonderful firelit interiors, cool beards and braids, nice fur wraps, and even Bjork in a small role as a scary seeress. But somehow those key shots that ignite the imagination and deliver you into the power of the narrative never appear.

In interviews, Eggers complained about studio interference in his attempts to make the most entertaining Robert Eggers movie he could deliver for the money:

Frankly, I don’t think I will do it again. Even if it means, like, not making a film this big ever again. . . . And by the way, I’d like to make a film this big. I’d like to make one even bigger. But without control, I don’t know. It’s too hard on my person.

But he’s also walked back those earlier remarks, insisting that the film represents no loss of authorship and that the studio’s role through postproduction was necessary to achieve the best version of The Northman. Still, it seems clear that he’s ambiguous at best about the process of making big-budget mainstream movies that almost inevitably involve a lot of interference from studio brass.

If you read about Eggers’s childhood as a wunderkind encouraged at every turn by intellectual and creative adults to fulfill his potential, it seems he’s had such a rarefied experience overall, it’s made him unlikely to thrive in the meat-grinder system of the mainstream film industry.

As Eggers put it himself, when asked why he thought test-screening audiences were having trouble with earlier cuts of The Northman, he said, “Currently, with my best intentions, like, I’m not normal. I look like a poster boy for a Bushwick hipster, but that is where my relatability ends, I fear.”

It’s that “I fear” at the end of the sentence that marks Eggers as a reader, a dreamer, one of those obsessive kids who lives in their heads full of art and history and fantasy and as a result talks in unusual phraseology even into adulthood. (Guess how I know!)

Eggers admits he was initially indifferent to Norse sagas, which were “too macho for my sensibilities.” It was his wife, clinical psychologist Alexandra Shaker, who inspired him with her love of all that blood-spewing, bonebreaking, honor-killing folklore. And it could be that it’s just not an ideal meeting of writer-director and subject matter. The film’s an honorable failure, in my view, but I also feel a certain urgency in saying that the sooner Robert Eggers goes back to his previous independent mode of filmmaking on subjects that obsess him personally from the start, the better.