Action Adventure

Review: ‘The Northman’ is an Epic and Action-Packed Tale of Revenge Steeped in Scandinavian Mythology and Soaked in Shakespearean Tragedy

April 11, 2022Ben MK

The valiant avenger is an archetype that has become ingrained into our collective unconsciousness as moviegoers. Whether it's an action hero like John Wick or superheroes like the Dark Knight and the Punisher, the theme of vigilante justice has been such a recurring one in Hollywood that it has even spawned its own sub-genre — the revenge thriller. And in his third feature film, The Northman, director Robert Eggers is adding his contribution to this age-old Hollywood tradition, with a bloody tale about a man who will stop at nothing until he has exacted vicious retribution for the wrongdoings committed against his family.

Set primarily in the early 10th century, the story follows Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), a Viking prince who, as a boy, fled his village in the North Atlantic after witnessing his uncle, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), murder his father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), in cold blood. Now, as a man who has grown into a fierce killer by living and fighting amongst a group of ruthless warriors in the land of Rus, Amleth is ready to return home to fulfil his vow of vengeance. Seeking to kill the treacherous Fjölnir and to rescue his beloved mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), who was subsequently kidnapped by his uncle and forced to marry him, Amleth sets out for Iceland, where Fjölnir and his followers have built a new chiefdom after being ousted by the King of Norway. But when he gets there, will Amleth at long last find what he's been searching for so many years? Or will he be greeted with even greater sorrow and heartache, when he learns of the disturbing truth behind his father's death?

Allying himself with a witch named Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy) and wielding a legendary weapon known as the Night Blade, Amleth stealthily begins putting his master plan into motion, hiding in plain sight as one of Fjölnir's slaves while secretly working to make his uncle's life a living nightmare by decimating his ranks one by one. Despite his unquenchable thirst for revenge, however, will Amleth be able to choose between kindness for his kin and hatred for his enemies when the time comes? As the buildup towards Fjölnir's inevitable day of reckoning intensifies, viewers will watch as Aurvandil's only son uses his otherworldly connection to nature to summon help from beasts of fur and feather alike, encountering supernatural visions and finding mortal love along the way. Ultimately, though, it will all come down to a fiery showdown between Amleth and Fjölnir, whose bloody feud threatens to claim the lives of both men, as pride and rage swells to consume them both.

Based loosely on ancient Scandinavian mythology, what follows is both brutal and poetic, with Skarsgård delivering what may well go down as the most powerful performance of his career. But while The Northman also features some familiar faces from Eggers' previous directorial efforts, The Witch and The Lighthouse, the result is by and large a far cry from those two movies, generally eschewing the cerebral nature of those acclaimed films in favor of something distinctly more visceral, raw and action-packed — qualities that will no doubt appeal to audiences in search of something with more of a blockbuster feel rather than an arthouse dynamic.

Suffice to say, Marvel Studios may have cornered the market on Viking-inspired action with its Thor franchise, but The Northman's blood-soaked portrait of its tragic, Shakespearean-like protagonist proves itself up for the challenge. What's more surprising is just how much the movie has in common with the Star Wars prequel trilogy, especially Revenge of the Sith. Still, you could argue that Eggers' duel of the fates is substantially more satisfying, even though this phantom menace isn't one that will be turned into action figures anytime soon.

The Northman releases April 22nd, 2022 from Focus Features. The film has an MPAA rating of R for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 16 min.

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