Accessibility is a metric that critics often discuss in conversations about art. In movies that are made to be more accessible, the ideas and themes are immediately clear. They can be enjoyed without much thought or effort. Producers have a great affinity for such projects as they don’t take much risk and appeal to a broad audience.
Filmmaker Robert Eggers, however, has no apparent interest in making accessible movies. In fact, he makes the sort of movies that highbrow critics exclusively refer to as “films.” In 2019, the filmmaker released The Lighthouse, a psychological, avant-garde horror film about a pair of lighthouse keepers descending into madness and alcoholism while entombed in the throes of a violent storm.
Eggers’s latest film, The Northman, is a historical epic from Scandinavian folklore. Said to be a loose inspiration for Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it follows Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard), a young prince exiled from his kingdom after his father, the king, was betrayed and murdered by his uncle.
While on the surface a Viking story starring Skarsgard sounds like your typical gritty revenge action flick, this synopsis only scratches the surface of Eggers’s latest picture. The Northman blends elements of the supernatural with Amleth’s own psychological reckoning with his lineage as he learns more about his past in his quest for vengeance.
The ancient story of Amleth might have been the inspiration for Hamlet, but the film’s plot also draws heavily from Macbeth. In the second act of the film, a grown Amleth, as a fully fledged and muscle-clad Viking, is visited by a spirit that delivers to him a prophecy, raising the question: Is Amleth bound to his fate? Or can he chart his own path? And without giving away the plot, which, unlike many revenge films, is deceptively nuanced and unpredictable, Amleth’s mother resembles Lady Macbeth far more than Hamlet’s Queen Gertrude.
Much of The Northman’s strength comes from how real Eggers’s Viking world feels. Through visceral shots, Eggers animates the rituals, traditions, and all facets of 10th century Viking life. From Nordic chants around crackling fires to animalistic howls before running into combat, every scene appears meticulously crafted to bolster this world.
Eggers strives for historical accuracy. No scene is blemished by the varnish of contemporary revisionism. Sorry to disappoint, but you won’t see any token wheelchair-bound, nonbinary minorities at the helm of Viking armies. In The Northman, Eggers offers an intimate glimpse into the sprawling, pitiless world of ancient Norse culture and rituals.
It isn’t just the customs of Viking life that Eggers explores, but also its societal morals — or lack thereof. How Eggers has no interest in making any of the characters remotely relatable or likable is a strikingly refreshing aspect of the film.
If you go into The Northman expecting a Lord of the Rings-type medieval action movie, you will likely come out feeling underwhelmed and befuddled. Though it’s suffused with impalements and beheadings galore, the film’s pacing is closer to a psychological thriller than to a traditional action movie.
The Northman is a more challenging film, one that demands something from its audience. It doesn’t serve you a facile good vs. evil narrative on a platter or let you sit back and root for the Avengers to save the day. While it isn’t as immediately accessible as the latest Marvel film, The Northman is like one surrealist painting in a gallery of early impressionist landscapes. It may not be immediately obvious or clear, but it’s different and weird. And sometimes, when we are bored of everything else, that can be a refreshing break.
Harry Khachatrian (@Harry1T6) is a computer engineer in Toronto. He is also a writer and editor, focusing on music, culture, and technology.