Robert Eggers has become one of the most distinctive voices in modern filmmaking thanks to films like 2015’s The Witch and 2019’s The Lighthouse, which are characterized by their distinctive visuals, elaborate production design, and darkly unconventional storylines. On the face of it, The Northman, with its tale of revenge set during the times of the Vikings, looks like his most straightforward film yet, even as it packs in the historical verisimilitude.
The film, which stars Alexander Skarsgård, Ethan Hawke, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, and Björk, follows a young Viking prince who seeks to avenge his father’s death and reclaim the throne from his murderous uncle. The trailer, with its promises of incredible aesthetics and bloody violence, has certainly piqued the curiosity of many, but how are critics reacting to this tale as old as time?
Carlos Aguilar, “A staggering feat of visceral filmmaking in a high-octane action odyssey”
A staggering feat of visceral filmmaking, The Northman, like Eggers’ previous films, warrants profound analysis while still delivering a high-octane action odyssey. Some of the flourishes the director opted for, as well as the film’s overall demeanor (neither entirely self-serious nor fully whimsical), may receive mixed reactions. Still what Eggers has ambitiously crafted lands as an invigorating beacon for an industry in need of studio fare with substantial ideas and artistry.
Walter Chaw, “The most surprising thing about it is how few surprises it holds”
That Robert Eggers’s latest film proves visually stunning is more expectation than revelation at this point. That it beggars traditional narrative tropes is also no longer a surprise, making The Northman a victim of, of all things, familiarity. There’s even a moment about midway through where the natural beauty, the grandeur of the film’s settings, works against it: being force-marched through the frankly-ravishing landscape, one slave essentially remarks to another that this place is a shithole. Imagine the claustrophobic vileness of the version of this film Andrea Arnold might have made. Aside from trodding the same frozen ground as the obviously superior Valhalla Rising, The Northman is merely extremely good-looking and very straightforward, for all its mythological underpinnings and ambition to be epic-feeling in terms of its royal melodrama.
Robert Daniels, “A visceral film filled with codas to the inescapable darker regions of nature”
This gory Viking tale works when considering its parts, but never really as a whole. The parts, however, are so thrilling, so uniquely calibrated to feverish, determined ends, that they elevate the entire film. Because how can one complain about the “too muchness” of the Valkyries? How can one scoff at the dizzying, unexplainable flights of magic? Where would the fun be in that? The Northman makes you happy it exists, even if you’re not totally happy with it.
Peter Debruge, “Seems to be running more on testosterone than sensitivity”
Teaming with local novelist Sjón, Eggers — a visionary director with a preternatural interest in history, as evidenced by his rigorously detail-oriented horror movies The Witch and The Lighthouse — also draws from the region’s rich folklore, looking to the sagas of Iceland, as well as the same Scandinavian legend that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet, to mount the classiest Vikesploitation epic you can imagine, complete with a doomsday Björk cameo. That it’s ultimately rather dull and hardly any fun is almost beside the point.
Leah Greenblatt, “A ride of the Valkyries spelled out in gore and popcorn”
The Northman is by far Eggers’ biggest film in both scope and budget, and it looks it: a sprawling summit-of-the-gods epic shot through with rich, hallucinatory set pieces, and movie stars in wild Pagan wiggery. Skarsgård, deltoids rippling, infers the damaged soul beneath his marauding slaughter-wolf, and a restless volcano lords over them all, burbling witness to the rivers of blood and ritual chaos below.
Scott Greenstone, “Its steel is strong, but hammered poorly into blockbuster mold”
In this third effort, Eggers is adapting a Viking tale that inspired Hamlet, but he has a bigger budget and bigger names (this is his first departure from indie mainstreamer A24, which produced The Witch and 2019’s The Lighthouse). With those armaments come more action, blood and guts, and — as Eggers has spoken about in interviews — more input from test audiences and studio execs (Focus Features).
These fit on Eggers’ filmmaking sensibility like a shirt of mail that’s too small. His other two movies are unpredictable and deeply weird. This one feels too foretold.
Mark Hanson, “Doesn’t lack for blood and guts, but it doesn’t play enough in the well of the weird”
Robert Eggers’s feature films up to this point have been marked by a sharp focus on the uneasy relationship between the eerily isolated environments in which they’re set and the lost souls who populate them. Drawing on his background as a production designer, Eggers meticulously recreates remote settings from another time that reflect his characters’ frenzied states of mind. The filmmaker now widens his view significantly in The Northman, a grandiose Viking saga that traverses vast Icelandic terrains and takes with it a cast of characters substantially larger than that of The Witch and The Lighthouse combined.
Germain Lussier, “A visceral and powerful historical thriller”
The Northman isn’t a movie for everybody, but it’s the Robert Eggers movie that’s probably for the widest audience. It probably also has the most bodies. He doesn’t shy away from the R-rated violence, which is particularly gut-wrenching in this film, nor does he give up on using eloquent, lyrical language throughout and infusing the film with dense mythological narratives. If anything, that mythology can at times get in the way of the film’s momentum. One early scene in particular (featuring Björk as “The Slav Witch”) is so densely packed with crucial information that you better hope you don’t zone out for a second or you’ll be completely lost. But that’s Eggers. He doesn’t make movies for casual viewing. He makes films that demand you pay attention and with The Northman, we’ll continue to pay attention to this rising filmmaking star.
Andrew Mack, “Robert Eggers gives you what you want while deep diving into Viking lore”
If we already know what’s going to happen, because we’ve seen it play out so many times before, then what makes The Northman worth watching? There have been no shortage of depictions of Viking culture over the years, recently with series that can be found at opposite ends of the entertainment spectrum. Shows that both depict it and poke fun at it. Where The Northman rises above this all too familiar storyline is in the depiction of Viking culture, in the customs, then in the violence.
Kristy Puchko, “Bold, brutal, and yet underwhelming”
Perhaps Eggers overplays his hand with the violence. As Amleth’s campaign of vengeance grows more audacious, audience members were chuckling at the grim reveals of his slaughtered victims. There is a comical collision in the sternness of these men and the outrageous of the violence that turns limbs into a macabre sculpture. But it’s not exactly funny as much as jarring. The Northman is filled with conflict, between the real and the fantastical, the stoic and the absurd, the brutal and the beautiful. And while I admire the structure of such storytelling, Eggers’s execution feels hollow, capturing the horror but undercutting the heart. So in the end, the blows — while intense and gory — don’t hit as hard as I’d have hoped.
Lars Walker, “At long last, there is a good Viking movie”
In any case, here’s my summation: The Northman is bloody, harsh, hyper-violent and disturbing. It is absolutely not for children or the sensitive. But it’s also brilliant and unforgettable.
The Northman arrives in theaters on April 22. Watch the trailer below.