“The Northman” Is Robert Eggers’ Strongest Work To Date: A Review

the northman review

This article was a submission from Jake Breidenbach. Find Jake on Instagram at @j_brdnbch. If you would like to share an article with The Zillennial Zine, send us an email at thezillennialzine@gmail.com or reach out to us on Instagram or Twitter.

In 2016, Robert Eggers burst onto the scene with The Witch, an eerie and sinister slice of colonial period piece horror that thrilled critics and audiences alike. Since then he has had to compete with the dreaded possibility of being the Next Big Thing, an honor and a burden for any filmmaker working in an industry on the constant hunt for a new generation of cinematic auteurs. Eggers followed up The Witch with The Lighthouse, a black-and-white Lovecraft-lite arthouse horror which brought more critical praise, but also began to give trepidation as to the scope of his full potential – technically daring but lacking in the sort of bombast needed in a sophomore offering in order to cement one’s place at the adults’ table. It made an impression but not a splash. The seeds were quietly planted; while his work thus far has generated critical appraise, audiences have been hankering for the Big One, that solid artistic statement that would cement his would-be status in the annals of cinematic fame. Was Eggers indeed a talented auteur primed for name recognition, or a rather a gifted production designer who lucked into the role of director?

The fans and detractors have been waiting at the door upon the release of The Northman, his biggest picture yet and the one which could make or break his burgeoning reputation. It’s a classic Viking epic, but not as sprawling as that word suggests. It abounds in creative flourishes, but it’s not an art film. It’s hard to predict how it will play with mainstream audiences, yet it’s easily his best film yet. Based on the Norse mythology that loosely inspired Hamlet, it tells the story of Amleth, an Icelandic prince exiled after the murder of his father by his uncle Fjolnir and the capture of the kingdom. He vows to avenge his father, rescue his mother, and kill his uncle. Plans, however, go wayward. Amleth finds himself taken in by a clan of roaming Vikings, pillaging and plundering villages across Europe and losing sense of his promise and his identity. However, upon a chance encounter with a mysterious Seeress (in an admittedly cool cameo by Icelandic songstress Bjork) he is reminded of his vow and sets sail to Iceland to exact revenge.

Every frame of the film is meticulously planned. Eggers’ past as a production designer shines through and despite the film’s fantasy leanings this world feels very real and very lived-in. An interesting facet running through all of Eggers’ work thus far is how each film wholeheartedly embraces the perceived reality of the time period. In The Witch, there was no apprehension about the existence of evil in the woods causing infernal havoc, no modern-day omniscient lens of skepticism with which to view the primitive beliefs of our beleaguered protagonists. Likewise, The Northman seamlessly blends mystic shamans and visions of Valhalla into its gritty narrative but is in no way a fantasy film. It presents a vision of the world through the lens of its characters, an increasingly rare and very welcome element in the cinematic landscape.

The Northman seems to hearken to a time before, not in history but in film, in which studios gave out big budgets for historical epics aimed at adult audiences. Already reports have funneled in, such as Variety’s article on whether the film’s modest debut weekend at the box office highlights the risk in funding “arthouse” pictures. The question at hand shouldn’t be whether The Northman is a failed art film or successful Viking epic; it should be whether the likes of Braveheart would get funded today in an IP-riddled, post-MCU world. A world where childless thirty-somethings line up to buy a ticket to the multiverse and the future of adult programming feels dire. Studios like A24 have built a brand on selling aesthetics while sometimes also selling art, cashing in on the Millennial pastime of forming parasocial relationships with interactive brand accounts. Everything is quirky and fun, but it’s never serious.

So where does Eggers go from here? He has since announced plans to remake 1922’s vampire classic Nosferatu, and while the aesthetician in me finds that alluring, I can’t help but feel he should aim higher – and more original. Being a generational auteur comes with some responsibility beyond dwelling in the past, as good as the end results may be. That is if it’s something Eggers wants. He may be content in crafting pristine period pieces of whatever genre backdrop he chooses, and at the end of the day that’s a great gig to have. The Northman is his strongest work to date and an anomaly in a sea of films that feel like they’d play better on Netflix than the silver screen. The ball’s in his court.

What is your The Northman review? Let us know in the comments below!

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