Review: The Northman

The Northman screenshot

Year: 2022 | Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

Before I get into my review, I just want to make it clear that above all else, I desperately hope that The Northman succeeds at the box office. This is the type of ambitious, mid-budget passion project that is becoming increasingly rare in the current cinematic landscape, so even though, as you’ll find out, I wasn’t crazy about this movie, please, if you have even an inkling of interest, go see the film and decide for yourself. The only way we’re going to get more films like these is if they make money.

Now then, on to my thoughts about the film itself. The first ten (or so) minutes of this movie are absolutely incredible. Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe chew the fuck out the scenery (and I mean that in the best possible way), and there’s one sequence in particular that is some of the most inventive and interesting filmmaking I’ve seen in a moderately big-budget film in a long time. The intro to this movie is every bit as bonkers and artistic as you would expect from writer-director Robert Eggers (the guy who made The Lighthouse [2019]). I had my seatbelt fastened, and I was ready to go on a wild ride.

Sadly, the rest of the film never quite lives up to those first ten minutes. There are certainly some moments of brilliance, and it’s undeniable that the film shines its brightest when it fully embraces its Norse mythology themes and dives head-first into the abstract and the spiritual, but those moments are few and far between in a story that is otherwise extremely straight-forward and somewhat cliché for a film of this genre. There are some lovely shots, and the action scenes are dynamic and interesting, and the climax is super cool by virtue of its setting, but mostly, I was just bored throughout most of this film because the story simply doesn’t support the artistry. It felt like Eggers had the ambition to tell a story akin to The Green Knight (2021), but The Northman rarely takes the risks that makes the former shine. Whether that is the fault of the filmmaker or of the studio seems to be a subject of some debate, but what’s certain is that the film ultimately suffers because of it.

I know, I know, this is a Shakespeare adaptation (or at least, an adaptation of the story that inspired Hamlet), so a certain narrative familiarity is to be expected. But, as I said in my review of Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story [2021], because we’re so familiar with these stories from centuries of adaptations, new adaptations must work all that much harder to overcome clichés and offer something new and fresh to the experience. There are interesting Shakespeare adaptations still being made (The Tragedy of Macbeth [2021] comes to mind). Sadly, to me, at least, The Northman doesn’t always succeed in that endeavor.

At any rate, and I can’t stress this enough, this is just one guy’s opinion. Please go see this film in your theater of choice. Show the major studios that there is an audience for mid-budget, non-tent pole titles, and that if they continue to release them, then we see continue to see them. Even if they aren’t all perfect movies, they are an integral part of the cinematic ecosystem that cannot be allowed to die out.

Language: English, Icelandic
Genre: Action, Fantasy
Runtime: 2 hr. 17 min.
Rating: R

Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor-Joy

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