No Therapy: The Primordial Commitment of The Northman


Robert Eggers’ third film “The Northman” sticks in the mind. Released in 2022, it’s the longest and by far most expensive film by Eggers—a bloody, glowering epic fantasy, loosely based on the myth that inspired William Shakespeare to write Hamlet, with dollops of the original “Conan the Barbarian” and heavy metal album covers. It continues the director’s streak of films that feel as if they’d somehow been made by the people whose stories they tell, in the time in which the stories are set. It came and went from theaters on first release and was declared a bomb but went on to be very successful as an on-demand title (or so I’ve been told) and seems to have found an audience. I’m glad, because I love it. 

The story is set in AD 895, and the first part will be familiar to anybody who’s seen a fantasy movie. King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) comes back from war to his kingdom on the island of Hrafnsey to be with his wife Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and his son Prince Amleth, his heir. The poor kid doesn’t get much quality time with his dad before the old man is killed by thugs led by his own brother Fjölnir, who is literally as well as figuratively a bastard. Fjölnir takes Gudrún away and the boy narrowly escapes with his life, vowing revenge in accordance with statements of his dad’s court jester Heimir (Willem Dafoe, co-star of Eggers’ previous feature “The Lighthouse“), who told Amleth that his destiny is set. 

Amleth grows up into a tall, broad-shouldered, hulking slave played by Alexander Skarsgård, and the movie fully commits to its identity as a manufactured artifact. He meets another slave, a woman named Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who has an indomitable spirit and seems to feel a connection with him, but this is not a Hollywood love story; more so than anyone in the present day, these characters are clearly just mammals who can talk, so their bond is all about surviving mistreatment and defeating one’s enemies. 

There is humor, but it’s subterranean, and not the liberating or forgiving kind. I laughed a lot during assorted viewings of “The Northman” because the main character is ferociously committed to fulfilling the prophecy of avenging his father and liberating his mother and the kingdom. He is so committed that he ignores or can’t even recognize that the context has changed, and the mission doesn’t mean the same thing it did when he was a kid: another king came along and kicked his uncle and everybody else off the island, and he and Amleth’s mother have resettled on a sheep farm. The kingdom he’s trying to reclaim isn’t the same kingdom that was stolen from him. It’s just mud, a few huts, some slaves (not nearly enough to mark the patriarch as a rich and important person; Keeping Up with the Johannsons) and a lot of livestock. Sure, he still gets to avenge the shabby treatment of himself and his mother, and that’s not nothing. But his mom initially seems to have gotten used to the new guy and accepted her fate and (possibly?) put the trauma behind her. She’s certainly adapted. What else is she gonna do, call a counseling line? Read a self-help book? Amleth, too. Everyone, really. 

The movie is filled with supernaturally tinged encounters between Amleth and various “seer” characters. They prophesy and give instructions that keep him on a path that seems so inevitable that, for an “action movie” full of violence and adventure, the movie is never particularly suspenseful, even when it’s plunging the viewer into the middle of close-quarters battles, scenes of atrocity and torture, and narrow escapes. I suppose some would consider the approach disappointing or tedious or simply not appealing. But I found it hypnotic and invigorating, because by entering into it, you accept the mindset of another culture from another time, and it briefly rewires your brain. This is the kind of world where you have a dream that feels real, and the information contained within it is delivered by a scary figure (or in one case, a severed and tongueless head with artificial eyes) who also feels real, and you awaken into a “real world” that doesn’t feel all that different from the dream. The long-take direction (elaborate camerawork and choreography, few or no cuts) emphasizes the idea that all of these characters are locked into a path and can only go forward. (For more about the making of the film, see my colleague Simon Abrams’ book The Northman: A Call to the Gods.)

I don’t think characters in Eggers’ movies have interior lives, at least not in the way that post-Freudian secular people who grew up in a world of self-awareness and self-inquiry understand it. Insight in Eggers’ films is not something that a character typically seeks and discovers on their own terms, but by having an encounter with some eerie being (a woman in a headdress, a cackling man in a cave, etc) who interprets dreams or reads entrails or something along those lines. And you accept it because it’s the kind of fictional universe in which metaphors are real, prophesies are sometimes misunderstood but never wrong, and gods not only exist but have plans for us that we don’t get to have a say in.

The question of whether you have free will is quite beside the point, because you’re locked into a journey described by others. You’ve been told by your elders that this is how the world works, and yes, indeed, that’s how it works, and you have to roll with it, not fight it, even when you have a better chance of happiness if you go some other way. There’s a moment late in the film that’s “The Northman” equivalent of the scene at the end of “Heat” where a thief is faced with the choice of getting revenge on the snitch who sold him out and risking arrest or death, or letting it go and starting a new life with the girlfriend who adores him, and the fact that it could only go one way is what makes the tale a tragedy. Is “The Northman” a tragedy? No, I don’t think so—because these characters wouldn’t even understand the argument for why they’re in a tragedy, and such discussions would be so irrelevant to their lives that they might slit your throat to shut you up.

There’s no ironic distance between the storytellers and the material, except for the byproduct of playing things so ferociously straight that the audience chuckles in nervousness or delight at how intense everyone is. In this movie as well as its predecessors “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” characters tend to laugh at other characters, not with them. Dialogue tends to be proclaimed, growled, moaned, yelled, or coughed up bloodily, rather than merely spoken. 

It’s not a lovable movie at all, but I still love it because it’s so uncompromising and inscrutable. Imagine “Conan the Barbarian” if Conan himself had directed it, and the only target audience was Conan himself. It’s a fetish object, bombastic and somber and magnificent. That it clearly doesn’t care whether the audience likes it makes me adore it. I’m usually in the tank for any film that has a life force so powerful that it seems impervious to any one person’s complaints about it. I had criticisms of it and objections to it when I first saw it and then went back and saw it again and can’t remember what they were. I look forward to each scene and set piece in the way that I look forward to the next track on an album I’ve grown to love. Crank it. 

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