The Northman

Directed by: Robert Eggers
Distributed by: Focus Features

Written by Taylor Baker

55/100

On its face “The Northman” seems to continue Robert Eggers’s opening career salvo of films with an uncompromising vision and while “The Northman” does leave one with that impression, his third film is the first that seems to eschew tonality and lowers itself into the ranks of films made with form in mind rather than function. Where “The Lighthouse” conveyed its madness not just to the audience but its characters in their slow maddening descent “The Northman” dips its toes into many different wells of human emotion but just as quickly pulls back before entertaining another. Feeling more like the prologue to your character in the latest Assassin Creed game than a full character itself. The stakes though inviting as they may seem are underwrought. And while that may be their very purpose on the page, in the film the absence of engaging reasons to stay invested undermines the entirety of the saga Eggers seeks to tell. We have no stake in the game by the film’s end, no emotional catharsis, or even a convincing reason as to why we should care whether or not a Valkyrie brings our hero to Valhalla. Where Anya Taylor-Joy’s Thomasin in “The VVitch” was distant, we felt through the form of the film her terror and unknowing, those emotions and the way she was captured feeling them is largely what gives that film resonance years later (Though Black Philip deserves a fair amount of credit too.) within “The Northman” though, we have no tangible reason care for her, her life before slavery, nor her life after, she’s a plot point. Like every other character. She’s nothing more than a function to the narrative; the emotionality that Eggers found and slow boiled into audiences in both “The Lighthouse” and “The VVitch” is absent in such a deafening way that one might be convinced that its emotional distance and opacity is a deliberate choice he made.

It does have distinctive moments, excerpts from its long and winding tale that despite being divorced from tangible emotionality are strong. Such as Willem Dafoe’s Heimir the Fool sequences, Ethan Hawke’s King Aurvandil and young Amleth crawling around on all fours acting like ravenous dogs, and Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) stealing a sword from a burial site(Though this does feel like nothing more than a fetch quest in whichever RPG you’re most familiar with.). And yet building this list of things that aren’t “negatives” so clearly underlines the fundamental issue of “The Northman;” its disparate parts are incohesive. It doesn’t feel whole. Not that any film has the responsibility of being seamless, but on the trajectory of a story primarily about a single character for which the film is named, it isn’t unreasonable to desire something that permeates the curving path of the narrative to resonate with those viewing it. “The Northman” feels more akin to a Discovery Channel reenactment from a master cinematographer than a film from an up-and-coming auteur. But even Ang Lee had “Gemini Man” and Michael Mann likewise had “The Keep,” a fully committed misstep needn’t be overblown this early in a filmmaker’s career, perhaps lowered expectations going into his next feature is something we all could use.

“The Northman” Trailer

“The Northman” enters theatrical wide release on April 22nd.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on film on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.

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