Sunday, May 1, 2022

At the Gates of Hel, I will meet you


Directed by Robert Eggers
Written by Sjón and Robert Eggers

Spoilers: moderate

Its co-writer/director, Robert Eggers, its producer/star, Alexander Skarsgård, and its other co-writer, Icelandic poet and Björk associate Sjón, will tell you that The Northman is an attempt to get at the savage, alien rhythms of life in the late 10th century in the Norse lands, mainly Jutland and Iceland with a stopover in Rurikid Rus.  This is not a lie, and while its $90 millionish cost was not to be richly rewarded, one hopes that Eggers can keep getting the funding for this sort of thing, because it absolutely is his thing, taking on historical material and piercing through the veil of pageantry and artificiality that almost always attends any period piece fixed on pre-modern times, or, honestly, just about any period piece set any earlier than the 1970s.

It's not necessarily that Eggers is merely more history book accurate, "accuracy" and "the sensation of authenticity" not being the exact same thing; nor is it that he abandons the judgment of the present upon the past, and sometimes, because this is an action-adventure movie and action-adventure movies are amplified, it feels the social histories he's being the most accurate to are lurid contemporary tales about Vikings told by traveling foreigners like Ibn Fadlan, who knew no one would be able to check their sources before they were dead.  No, it's just that very few filmmakers have the broad-mindedness to genuinely make you believe that their characters believe that, for example, gods and devils actually exist.  Eggers does.  The only American filmmakers I can name offhand who might be better at evoking pre-modern psychology are Albert Hughes and Mel Gibson, and they were both permitted to cheatthe biggest "problem" with The Northman being that, unlike Alpha or Apocalypto*, it's delivered predominantly in English rather than the dialects its characters would speak, and while I realize the most psychotic critique somebody could make about The Northman is "they don't speak Old Norse," I earnestly do think it would be better in something akin to its source language and subtitled, and not just because the accents and screaming mean you can only understand about two-thirds of its dialogue regardless.  (The Northman does, on the other hand, visibly structure itself into chapters titled in runes and subtitled in English; the film's logo, which appears only at the end, arrives the same way.)  In any event, Eggers is probably widely perceived to be better at rendering his pre-modern figures meaningfully pre-modern, if for no other reason than because Eggers pitches his period pieces in the kind of formal austerity that lends itself to arthouse celebration.  But, you know, he's one of the good ones.

Eggers first demonstrated his core competency in his feature debut, The Witch (which itself got to cheat, since while it's in English, it's in 17th century English, and therefore constantly challenging you to comprehend it).  The Northman's more in line with that first film than it is his second and otherwise most-recent, The Lighthouse.  Being less enthusiastic about The Lighthouse than many (which only means I think it's very cool rather than some surrealist masterpiece), The Northman feels like Eggers shedding that picture's arty frivolity and getting back to what he does best, creating a totalizing vision of the past on the past's own termsnasty, brutish, and beyond the rational comprehension of those who inhabit it.  I'm not as eager to attribute as much freakish lunacy and superstition to the past as EggersThe Witch had the benefit of focusing upon members of a subculture who were considered freakish lunatics by their peers, and there are individual beats here (egregiously, the knattleikr game that turns instantaneously into gladiatorial combat) that are bowdlerized to the point of being ludicrousbut it is a handy way to get to where he's going, and The Northman is at least as invested in Norse religion as The Witch was with Protestantism (so much so that it begins with a prayer to Odin against the backdrop of a volcano).

But somehow it's even more stripped-down and essentialist than The Witch was, trading in a frontier spook tale that dealt in primal urges for something that's primordial already.  It appears to be even more stripped-down and essentialist than the actual myth that inspired it, the saga of Amlethenough so that Hamlet (Amleth = Hamlet, obviously) is a significantly more faithful adaptation of the plot of the Icelandic and Danish legend than The Northman is, as you can at least see how the legend prompted the chamber drama aspects in Shakespeare's play.  (If Amleth attempted the same ruses in The Northman, I don't think his uncle would have been put off for a second, just because his nephew was acting too goofy to be king.)  The Northman kind of doesn't even have "a plot," or at least not much of one, and what plot there is tracks at least as well (and probably better) with Conan the Barbarianand Conan the Barbarian still has more plot.  It is, instead, a soak in the blood and sweat and spit of absolute savages (who are conveniently white, though our need for savages is such that if Scandinavians didn't exist, we would have to invent them).  It's very serious about this, but also overwhelming and constant and occasionally even carnivalesque in its efforts to plant you in a distant time and give you its impression of an even more distant mindset.  So maybe it's less an attempt to capture what it was like to live back in Iceland in the 9th century (99% of life in Iceland in the 9th century would've been like 99% of life everywhere else, that is, farming and shit related to farming), but to capture something of what it might have been like to have heard the now-lost epic poem recited for the first time back in Iceland in the 9th century.

So, by mentioning Hamlet, I have gotten much of that "plot" out of the way already: Amleth (Skarsgard), father (Ethan Hawke), mother (Nicole Kidman), uncle (Claes Bang).  The latter, Fjolnir, seizes the kingship of a rocky, desolate Jutish isle in a violent coup, and barely misses the prepubescent Amleth (Oscar Novak plays him as a kid), who, mindful of the obligations of sons to fathers, swears his revenge.  Years later, he's in Russia, doing what Vikings do in Russia, as part of a band of itinerant, slave-raiding Varangians, but that thirst for vengeance remains.  A shipment of slaves, it turns out, is headed towards Iceland, where it happens that Fjolnir has ended up with Amleth's mother, now but the holder of a tiny, shithole fiefdom after the dispossession of his stolen kingdom by Harald I of Norway.  Slicing off his hair and branding his own breast, Amleth joins the shipment, arriving in Iceland with no one the wiser except fellow slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who enthusiastically joins forces with Amleth insofar as being a slave is no fun.  Visited by visions, Amleth acquires steel, and a prophecy: that he will be forced to choose between "kindness to his kin and hatred for his enemy," and that his path will lead him to the gates of Hel and/or Hell, and of course it's no coincidence that Fjolnir's household sits uneasily alongside a smoldering, petulant volcano.

This is kind of it, for 137 minutes (Amleth's arrival in Iceland definitively happens before the hour mark), and while my gut tells me that it could be tightened somehow, I don't even know what I would begin cutting.  (If anything, I would add: there is an abruptness to the finale that I find a little disagreeableit's unfair to accuse it of lack of build-up because the whole film is build-up, but it still almost feels that way.  The beginning is also rushed, with basically not a single scene to buffer Amleth's father's initiation of the lad into the requirements of Viking filial piety and the events that immediately put this piety into practice.  Either way, it's known that Eggers was prevailed upon to make some cuts.)  In-between, what we have is essentially an unusally severe version of a 50s religious epic that's centered on Odin rather than Jesus, and the offscreen reality that Amleth perceives to the All-Father and, moreso, the Fates (who receive onscreen reality, in the form of a quasi-hallucination, played under gruesome accoutrements by the aforementioned Björk), becomes the driver of the narrative as much as Amleth's own will, so much so that it walks up to edge of "fantasy" just by taking Amleth's religious impulses as subjectively real.  At least subjectively real, but such is the only kind of "real" that Amleth would understand.

Everything in the film is built around this shamanistic pagan mindset, giving us witness to signs and symbols and, often, literal divine beings, pushing us towards the same exact inability to distinguish the natural and supernatural.  The Northman is filled with what I suppose you could call "a score" by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough, that's about as aggressive as a film score can get, borderline-tuneless noise and unintelligible choral throat-singing, like a dirge coming from under the earth, savage hymns raised up high enough in the sound mix to feel like a constant oppressive force; against this otherworldly soundscape is set the weird unreality of the landscapes (particularly in the Icelandic phase of the film).  Only slightly more subtly, Eggers's visual scheme lands with a decided emphasis on straight lines, frequent tracking shots implacably moving on single axes with unyielding stiffness, so that even when they "turn" it's from one sharp angle to another equally sharp angle.  That's suggestive of "fate" moving Amleth on his appointed path, in the way the script is pretty much explicit about it, and I don't know if it absolutely needs to be more sophisticated than that, but while it's hard to gauge from a single viewing, it feels like this lets up more in the back half of the film, when he's on the precipice of attaining his revenge, and begins to wonder that just because he must, if he also should.  (The tightening up could come here, I guess, but I wouldn't trade it; you could "tighten up" Hamlet by a considerably greater margin, after all.)

And this is on top of the overbearing sheerness of the setting and the tactility of it, particularly the use of as much practical light as possible, so that nighttime is often as dark as the old stories make it, barely held at bay by firelit haze.  It is, also, extremely metal, and while it's art-adjacent and all, it's told in relatively short sentences frequently punctuated with exclamation points of very nasty violence.  Arguably not enough violence, or maybe just underemphasized violence, and Jarin Blaschke's photography and the bloody action are the two things you could quibble with.  The former is a little overdetermined in ways less interesting than everything else is overdetermined, unfortunately establishing that every single day in Iceland, Denmark, and Russia is ten seconds away from a rainstorm in the manner that every single motion picture going for "dour" does nowadays (this was thrown into sharper relief by a viewing of the ur-Northman, The Vikings, which gets a fair amount of mileage out of the tension between raping and reiving Vikings and sunny fields full of flowers); this is more than made up for by the night photography, which isn't always "naturalistic," in that naturalism would be unreadable, but is defined by smoky murk or a simulacrum of moonlight so silver the movie goes black-and-white for scenes at a time.  (I am likewise impressed by the silent film lensing in some of Amleth's visions.)  The latter, that violence, is often unwilling to exult in savagery, sometimes even when it should: it's tilted toward cold observation, which is a fairer choice for a slave raid than it is for Amleth headbutting a man into oblivion more-or-less offscreen, or the glimpsed array of body parts Amleth leaves his uncle under the guise of a lupine spirit; of course, this is far more than made up for by that Goddamn duel atop an erupting volcano, and much more besides (not least Amleth's combat for a mystic sword, which, in being hard to read as anything besides avowed reference to Conan the Barbarian, belies all the fun Eggers had to have been having here regardless of how severe and serious it all is).

But it's as much Skarsgard's moviethis is true in a literal sense, as they share producer creditsand the film originated with Skarsgard, who'd been fishing around for something Viking going on a decade.  The Northman was always destined to wind up the actor's passion project.  Everyone is giving a strong performance herethere's not a weak link (Kidman comes closest in terms of her wildly diverging accent, though in fairness I believe she's supposed to be a Breton).  Despite the rather unstereotypical players (if you told me "there's a Viking movie coming out," I don't think I'd immediately ask, "so they definitely got Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman, right?"), there was logic to this cast, each filling roles that seem strangely tailor-made for their strengths, particularly Taylor-Joy.  (Kidman gets to be freakish in entirely different ways than everything else is freakish, harking back to some of her more outlandish predator-women characters.)  Meanwhile, Willem Dafoe is better than just "strong," once again deploying his wild-eyed lunatic in service of a jester-warlock.  But Skarsgard is the indispensable lens through which we view this terrifying world, ranging from the comparatively subtle disquiet he evinces as he mentally compares hacking-and-slashing through a Slavic village to his father's assassination and his mother's kidnap, to the committed theatrics involved in invoking animal spirits for their fury and power (and these specific modes even overlap).  But what surprised me the most about The Northman was how much of an emotional journey it actually becomes, a character study of a man who considers himself kin to animals, and who's willingly accepted his fate as a figure in a mythic cycle, but who paradoxically becomes more human and complex the more he accepts that he is a fool of fate.  It kicks the shit out of the last time an A24 veteran based a movie on a medieval poem, anyway.  It is, as noted, very fucking metal.

Score: 9/10

*The Passion of the Christ is great, but I think it's mostly just trying to get at Gibson's understanding of the Trinity.


  1. Apropos of nothing, I would dearly love to see Mr Mel Gibson's CONAN THE BARBARIAN - and have thought so ever since seeing APOCALYPTO, possibly even since first seeing BRAVEHEART (and even, to a lesser extent, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST).

    Who knows if that would even work, but I doubt it would be boring - though I'm not sure Mr Gibson could get the backing these days, even as director only (which was my intent).

    1. Maybe after Passion of the Christ 2, which is apparently real and I'll be happy to see it, even if I'd probably rather see his Esther and the King or Ten Commandments than his Quo Vadis or The Robe.

    2. PASSION OF THE CHRIST II? Man, I knew there were four evangelists but I didn’t realise they were planning to adapt the whole series!

  2. Also, THE NORTHMAN is a trip and a half; not my favourite movie, but definitely one well worth having seen (even if I'm not especially keen on watching it again).