After watching “The Walking Dead” for the past ten years, I thought I would be accepting of the many ways to dispatch a human being, undead or otherwise.
But I was wrong.
“The Northman,” the latest film by director Robert Eggers, finds new ways to illustrate the depravity of a mind hell-bent on vengeance. Disembowelment, the lopping of heads, a spear through the heart. The film is a smorgasbord of violent intent.
Eggers always has been a proponent of verisimilitude. In his last feature, “The Lighthouse,” he ordered built an actual 70-foot lighthouse because a facsimile just wouldn’t do.
In “The Northman,” aided by Icelandic poet Sjon, he sets out to create the ultimate Viking tale, which at its beating heart is really about nothing more than a boy vowing revenge on the man who killed his father, portrayed by Ethan Hawke. And he barely escapes the same fate.
When we next encounter Amleth, he is a member of a marauding band attacking a village, murdering the adult males and laying waste to the rude huts with thatched roofs. And you begin to wonder: did we misread the gentle nature of the boy who revered his father, the king?
Alexander Skarsgard plays the young prince vowing vengeance all grown up. He is a hulking and howling presence, a force of nature, a sword-wielding and savage beast. And a perfect counterpoint to a regal Nicole Kidman as his queen of a mother and a pale wisp of a mysterious lover played by Anya-Taylor Joy.
It’s his encounter with a Nordic witch that ultimately changes the course of his life and sets in motion his quest to find his father’s killer.
Much of the tale takes place in cold and barren Iceland, so windswept and forbidding in winter, I couldn’t help thinking the actors and crew more than earned whatever they were paid.
Eggers excels at atmosphere and the cinematography is often breath-taking. But the story, dense with Norse imagery and historical pageantry, sometimes can feel inert.
There are, however, occasional surprises, especially one in the third act that is truly mind-blowing. A reveal that turns the entire narrative on its head.
And there’s no denying that a story featuring a magic sword and an erupting volcano is worth your time.
Still, “The Northman,” set in the year 925 A.D., offers unfortunate parallels to the present conflict in Ukraine. Proving that blood lust and immorality are as old as time.