Franchise action films are in love with justice. “James Bond,” “Superman,” “Iron Man,” “Harry Potter” and even “Ghostbusters” go out of their way to let you know that the people onscreen aren’t just shooting, hitting or blasting each other for fun. They are shooting, hitting or blasting each other for good. The special effects and choreography are anchored to a morality tale that justifies excesses of violence and lots of explosions.
Based on the same Danish legend that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the film is a tale of revenge and blood for its own sake.
Robert Eggers’ historical action epic “The Northman” is resolutely, and gloriously, uninterested in justice or in setting things right. Based on the same Danish legend that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the film is a tale of revenge and blood for its own sake, which forcefully puts a sharpened axe through any moral catharsis. Like the ravens that occasionally flap across the screen, viewers aren’t there to witness the triumph of heroism. They’re there to feast on the carrion.
The revenge-plot swings back and forth as efficiently as a scythe. In the 800s A.D., King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) is murdered by his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who also seizes and marries Aurvandill’s queen, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Aurvandill’s son, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) escapes, and swears to revenge his father, save his mother and kill Fjölnir.
After some years working as a mercenary, Amleth joins a Rus raiding party that destroys a village and enslaves the inhabitants. He finds out the captives are destined for Fjölnir, who was driven from his home by the king of Norway and now lives in reduced circumstances in Iceland. Amleth disguises himself as a slave and plots to murder Fjölnir with the help of a fellow slave, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), and the requisite magic sword.
We see Amleth’s horror as a child when Fjölnir kills his father; viewers are likely to be on his side. But Eggers makes sure it’s clear that Amleth’s isn’t the right side. The scene in which he raids the village is a ravishly filmed panorama of war crimes: prisoners killed, women and children murdered, prisoners burned alive. Amleth participates without any apparent qualm. The fight choreography is brutal, animalistic and efficient; Amleth cuts a swath through opponents who are obviously less well trained and are just trying to defend their families. He tears out one poor man’s throat with his teeth.
Nor is Fjölnir a caricature villain. Yes, he enslaves people, murders with impunity and tries to rape Olga. He’s a bad person. But he obviously cares for his wife and for his children. Both he and Amleth are brutal, vicious men who take what they want and deal out bloody violence to those who stand in their way.
That spectacle of carnage is the purpose of the film, and Eggers knows that viewers know it.
That spectacle of carnage is the purpose of the film, and Eggers knows that viewers know it. Amleth is bound by fate. He must fulfill his revenge plot so that he can die in battle and enter the hall of Odin, as a number of seers (most notably one played by Björk) tell him. Is that a fanciful pagan notion? Or is it the logic of the action/revenge film? For Eggers, it’s the same thing; the old cycle of violence and the new cycle of violence are caught in the same giant world tree that haunts Amleth’s visions.
The movie could easily end an hour in, if Amleth just killed Fjölnir as soon as he arrived on the farm. But, as he tells Olga, it’s not time yet; he’s got to keep following fate, or the plot. A bit further on, when Fjölnir captures him and beats him, Amleth tells his uncle confidently that he cannot be killed yet because it’s not time. That sounds like a mystical prediction. But it could also just be the star of a film checking his watch, and figuring out that the run time isn’t finished.
Amleth does waver at points. He wonders if hate is really the only path, or whether he can turn aside for love. But ultimately fear chains him to his destiny. He worries that Fjölnir will never let him be, so back to destiny he goes — though the decision was never really in doubt. An action movie has to have a climactic battle. And this one, set astride a volcanic fissure, very much delivers.
Before he goes on a raid, Amleth performs an animalistic ritual — growling and declaring that he has cast off his human traits to become a bear or a wolf. Conscience, compassion, kindness are set aside for the crack of skulls. Amleth doesn’t pretend to be righteous. He pretends so he doesn’t have to think about righteousness at all.
Eggers offers his viewers a similar experience of amorality. This isn’t a superhero flick where the conceit is that every mega-explosion saves another baby. The immense, desaturated vistas, stark and open, don’t afford much hiding place for hypocrisy or self-deception. “The Northman” offers elaborately staged hatred and death. It was popular then; it’s popular now.