‘The Northman’: revenge of the action epic

Pima Post

“The Northman”

Directed by: Robert Eggers

Rating: R

Run time: 2 hours, 16 minutes

Showing at The Loft Cinema

A movie like “The Northman” is rare nowadays, and even more rare is for studios to greenlight this type of movie. So this is how I imagine the pitch meeting went (it’s the only explanation):

And we’re off.

“The Northman” is a uniquely balanced film. It is raw and gruesome but at the same time beautifully shot without compromising artistry for fireworks.

Most Shakespeare adaptations err in insisting that the dialogue has to remain in the Shakespearean style.

That’s great for people who have those artistic sensibilities. But when doing a version of “Coriolanus” as a contemporary war movie like Ralph Fiennes in 2011 … you might want to take some liberties.

Another version of this is last year’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” It is a great movie, and Denzel Washington was in top form. But the dialogue excluded audiences who don’t care for a highbrow movie style. 

Sjón and Eggers, however, did a superb job of adapting a Shakespeare play into a digestible and fun movie experience — mixing it with Norse mythology was just a chef’s kiss. 

Eggers also pulled off the visual style that he wanted. The writer/director is known for dark supernatural indie movies and he was able to employ these mystic elements in an action-packed historical epic.

At its core, this is a revenge movie. And character development shouldn’t be a focal point. The formula is simple: Establish what the protagonist loves, then the antagonist kills what the protagonist loves, and the protagonist embarks on a quest for revenge.

In the wrong hands, this type of movie can feel cliché and cheap. But Eggers elevated the genre with great all-around filmmaking and casting.

Alexander Skarsgård plays the protagonist, Amleth, and makes his lifelong dream of playing a Viking come true. 

He did an excellent job at embodying the role. When playing fantasy characters or action heroes, it’s necessary for the actors and actresses to believe they are that character — or otherwise they come off as cheesy, and we end up with a Ryan Reynolds-”Green Lantern” situation.

But Skarsgård dove into this character, and there wasn’t a moment that it felt like he was doing an impression or a Viking cosplay. 

His interpretation of Amleth was all rage, brute force, angst and grief. At times overacting with no nuance, but that’s what the part called for.

Anya Taylor-Joy is having a moment and she was perfectly casted as Olga: A seemingly soft-spoken slave who is actually a powerful witch (Don’t worry, it’s not a spoiler). 

Her demeanor as Olga is haunting and rebellious. Qualities that match well with Amleth and serve as a contrast to the rest of the characters, adding gravity to their connection.

The choices for the supporting and secondary characters were brilliant. Eggers picked some of the most magnetic movie icons to fill out the rest of the cast. And because of this, there are no bad scenes or dull moments in the movie.

Oscar-nominated actors Willem Dafoe and Ethan Hawke have small but impactful roles. And Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman gave a chilling performance — out-acting everyone in her scenes.

Having these A-listers be part of the movie makes it feel like an event (even Björk came out of acting retirement!). It was a shrewd move by Eggers to add prestige to his most expensive project so far.

“The Northman” is a reminder of times when action epics were a movie theater experience. The last scene alone makes it worth the trip … it stunned the audience into silence. No clapping, laughing, or crying, just silence.

It is an incredible action movie. But unfortunately, it has “only” generated $12 million at the box office after one weekend — and probably won’t be able to cover its costs, according to Variety.

However, Eggers shouldn’t care about this because studios won’t care about losing money on such a great movie. 

A movie like this would be a smash hit in the late ’90s or early ’00s, and besides, it was most likely a “prove it” project for the up-and-coming auteur.

Much like Denis Villeneuve and Christopher Nolan, who started getting blank checks from studios after proving they could make grandiose movies and not just inventive indies, Eggers also eventually will get his.