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Get Grunting or Get Gone with "The Northman"
I've really got to start working out.
The environment of The Northman is one of ice and fire, one where it’s difficult to imagine anything beyond cloudy skies, dirt & mud, windy days, and volcanic nights. And such an environment, of course, breeds a kind of man who fights as if dominated and possessed by the elements. Knights of ice and fire, they could be. Director Robert Eggers, after his previous effort The Lighthouse, continues his exploratory thread of male gender politics and bonds, if by way of ripped abs and pure vengeance. No matter how potentially challenging, his movie is a revenge action picture first and foremost, crafted out of iron and sorcery, delivered to a moviegoing world that demands the familiar and the colorful. Revenge is familiar and colorful, but the landscape is cloudy and bleak, smothered in the smog of smoke. This is a film that gives what is wanted, without any regrets, through an environment that’s as angry as it is awesome.
Nothing about The Northman is unattainable to standard observation. It’s all simple to gather if dressed up with the legend of spells and rituals. The young prince of a Viking kingdom goes on the run after witnessing the murder of his father and the kidnapping of his mother at the hands of his uncle, vowing to avenge his fallen family and to kill anyone and everyone in his way, living for nothing more. Growing up to become an ax-wielding pack of muscles in the form of Alexander Skarsgard, the prince covers his animalistic intent with the sheepskin veil of a mild-mannered slave in order to fulfill his fate and end his journey. A standard tale, but boldly told.
“There were no Viking atheists,”
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“The real world and the religious world were absolutely the same for them; therefore, it needed to be the same way for the film.”
Skarsgard plays this prince with a hulking presence, speaking as if to grunt and shout - at least at first. It’s celebratory how well he’s able to transition the character back into a human being and thinking individual after years and years as an instinctual beast. It’s through both his long-form hunt and his meeting with a young handmaiden slave, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. The Northman bludgeons and brutalizes and casts much magic, but it’s in the performance of Joy, whose role is on a path towards freedom and life and genius, that a kind of grace is found. No duh, but absolutely fine as is. Joy shines with intensity when calm and control when intense. She’s come so far from her revelatory turn in Eggers’s The Witch, pushing herself further and further, if in baby steps. Slow and steady.
It would be a shame to write about the acting in this film without mentioning its best-performed sequence, between Skarsgard and Nicole Kidman. There’s a spectrum between Joy and Kidman’s female characters, both with a kind of push and pull on the prince’s very soul. Kidman’s queen and mother, when confronted by her son, becomes yet another obstacle and source of sorcery for Skarsgard to conquer. But, at this moment, he stalls like a stunned child. Kidman exerts such frightening and non-resonant power, by which I mean hardly anyone could relate to the game she’s playing. At least, no one would want to admit relating to that. And that’s an amazing feat.
When your movie begins with a foreboding shot of a premature (feels like it) volcanic eruption and a snarly and growly voice-over, you’re setting up for something that rarely could be lived up to. Something absurdly visionary, born of nightmares and male genetic jackhammering. True to this design, The Northman achieves this kind of ethereal environment and, surprisingly, another - something that resembles a high definition video game story mode. I couldn’t help but think of Crazy Samurai Musashi, a one-take sword-swiping escapade that’s more gameplay than narrative when watching The Northman. There is no second-hand experience with this film though; I didn’t feel as if I was impatiently watching my brother play something exciting. The excitement this time out was playing for me and me alone.
There’s a grand scene where Skarsgard has a petty name-calling fit with a Viking wizard type. It’s a blink and you’ll miss it moment, but incredibly hilarious. That was more than fantasy and legend. That was more than epic. That was fun. Great and fun. 5/5