The Northman is a 2022 American epic historical action thriller film directed by Robert Eggers. Based on the legend of Amleth, the film stars co-producer Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk, and Willem Dafoe. The film is heavily influenced by Norse mythology. It demands audiences deconstruct overbearing patriarchal values, masculine heroism, and the folly of revenge by pulling viewers through extreme devotion to familial honor.
In AD 895, King Aurvandill returns to the island of Hrafnsey after his overseas conquests, reuniting with his wife, Queen Gudrún, and his heir, Prince Amleth. To prepare Amleth for his eventual ascension, the two participate in a spiritual ceremony overseen by Aurvandill’s jester, Heimir. The next morning, Aurvandill’s bastard brother Fjölnir murders the king, raids his hillfort and carries away Gudrún. Amleth flees by boat, swearing vengeance.
Years later, Amleth lives as a berserker with a band of Vikings. After an attack in Gardariki, Amleth encounters a Seeress in the temple of Svetovit; the Seeress predicts that Amleth will soon take revenge on Fjölnir, and that his path is intertwined with a Maiden-King. Amleth learns that Fjölnir was overthrown by Harald of Norway and lives in exile in Iceland. Posing as a slave, Amleth sneaks aboard a ship. He encounters a Slavic woman named Olga, who claims to be a sorceress. They are taken to Fjölnir’s farm, where he learns his mother has married Fjölnir and bore him a son named Gunnar.
One night, Amleth encounters a magician who facilitates a spiritual dialogue between Amleth and the late Heimir, revealed to have been murdered by Fjölnir. He then tells Amleth about Draugr, a magical sword at the Gates of Hel. Amleth enters a mound and obtains the blade after fighting the undead Mound Dweller. He hides it upon return to the farm. The next day, Amleth is selected to compete in a game of knattleikr against another farm. The game turns violent and Gunnar is almost killed, but Amleth saves him. As a reward, Fjölnir’s adult son, Thorir, grants him overseer duties and allows him to choose a woman.
During the evening celebrations, Amleth and Olga make love; they promise to overcome Fjölnir together. Amleth kills several of Fjölnir’s men, and Olga mixes their food with fly agaric, a potent hallucinogen. The ensuing chaos and the suspicion that the Christian slaves are behind the killings allows Amleth to enter Fjölnir’s house. He meets his mother, who reveals that she was originally taken into slavery and that Amleth’s conception was the result of rape. She reveals that she wanted Aurvandill and Amleth dead; she tries but fails to seduce Amleth. Enraged, Amleth kills Thorir and steals his heart.
Gudrún reveals Amleth’s true identity to Fjölnir, and calls for him to kill him. Fjölnir threatens to kill Olga, but Amleth offers to trade Olga’s life for Thorir’s heart. After a severe beating, Amleth is released from his restraints by a flock of ravens. Olga rescues Amleth and the two escape by boat. Amleth has a vision and discovers that Olga is pregnant with twins, one of whom will become the Maiden-King prophesied by the Seeress. Fearing that his children will never be safe, Amleth decides to kill his uncle and jumps overboard, despite Olga’s pleas.
Back at the farm, Amleth frees the slaves and kills most of Fjölnir’s men. While searching for Fjölnir, Amleth is attacked by his mother and drives Draugr through her heart. Gunnar attacks Amleth, stabbing him repeatedly in the back before Amleth kills him. Fjölnir, discovering his wife and son dead, tells Amleth to meet him at the Gates of Hel—the crater of the volcano Hekla—to resolve the conflict via holmgang. At the volcano, Amleth and Fjölnir engage in a fierce swordfight; Fjölnir is decapitated, and Amleth is fatally wounded. As Amleth lies dying, he has a future vision of Olga embracing their twin children, before a Valkyrie appears to carry him through the gates of Valhalla.
Eggers uses slicker aesthetics and broader emotions, played out over a grander scale, with his familiar interests in the inherent weirdness that courses through ancient mythology. This isn’t a prototypical hero’s journey replete with a dashing royal, however. Amleth occupies a different, harsher kill-or-be-killed era where no higher honor can befall a king than to die by the blade. In the world of “The Northman” we’re all just rabid animals occupying flabby sacks of human skin. The only obligations we have are primal: to avenge one’s father, and to defend one’s mother and kingdom. For example, one of the best and most vicious sequences in the movie involves Amleth and a band of skin-clad Vikings, covered in bear-pelt headdresses, edited with razor-sharp clarity, sees the pack methodically rampaging a village for kills. The elaborate tracking shot accompanying the scene feeds the camera’s delirious appetite for flesh with bodies bathed in blood, and the bone-chilling macho screams emanating from insatiable men. One shot, recalling the 1985 Soviet antiwar flick “Come and See,” finds a burning house filled with wailing villagers as a backdrop to Amleth’s unflinching gaze into the camera. Unlike Klimov’s film, this isn’t the image of a boy horrifically marked by war. This is a savage and defiant man fueled by conflict and gore.
A defining aspect of this movie is “rage” – at its most primal. “The Northman” is the kind of movie where even the mud has rage; it is a visceral film filled with codas to the inescapable darker regions of nature: animal, elemental and the harshest of all, human. David Lowery’s “The Green Knight” will probably serve as an all-too-easy comparison for many. But “The Northman” operates on a different emotional spectrum and is much less boring while trying to achieve the same. This is a story of blind ambition stretched toward morally flawed ends in a world that prizes such malleability. That doesn’t mean these flawed characters don’t see themselves on the side of right. A virtuous anger fuels Amleth as he destroys his victims in his quest for revenge.
The last act is a slog, composed of a couple false endings hoping to attain a poetic plain. The final showdown between Fjölnir and Amleth, in the mouth of a volcano, in fact, is somehow anti-climactic. Certainly, the scene aims to explain the ways a hero’s journey, the expectation of fulfilling one’s destiny, no matter the consequences, carries a toxic burden, but the sentiment doesn’t translate in the overstated molten chaos. Amleth inhabits a world whose operating principle is cruelty. Driven less by plot than by a succession of intensifying moods, these films dig into historical moments when the boundary between the human and the supernatural felt especially thin. Archaic forms of belief are treated not as superstitions, but as ways of understanding scary or inexplicable facets of experience. The witches and mermaids are as real as anything else.
Watch The Northman for a high-octane action thriller where violence and vengeance reigns. If you are whiner regarding what you consider “toxic masculinity” then do avoid.