I'm Really Mad People Have Stopped Talking About The Northman - Here's Why

 The Northman.
Credit: Focus Features

I often go back and forth on who’s my favorite director of the 2010’s.

Sometimes, it’s Jordan Peele, who has never made a bad movie. Other times, it’s Ari Aster, who made two of my favorite horror movies (and Beau is Afraid) in the past ten years. And then, you have Robert Eggers, who made the incredibly creepy, The Witch, but also one of my favorite movies of all time (that deserved to be nominated for Best Picture!) in The Lighthouse.

However, you also have his third movie, The Northman, which just might push Eggers over Peele and Aster for me. And, here’s the thing. As much as the movie was discussed and lauded back when it came out in 2022, I barely hear anybody talking about it anymore, which really upsets me! Here’s why.

Willem Dafoe in The Northman
Willem Dafoe in The Northman

Every Performance In It, Top To Bottom, Is Oscar-Worthy

The Northman cast is absolutely stacked, but the beauty of this film is that all of the actors magnificently disappear into their roles, which is always the sign of great acting for me. You have Ethan Hawke, who plays the betrayed king, Aurvandill. He isn’t in the movie for all that long, but every second he’s onscreen is noteworthy.

Then you have his wife, Queen Gudrun, played by Nicole Kidman. I don’t want to spoil the movie for you just in case you haven’t seen it yet, but she plays one of the most mysterious characters of her entire career. It’s so good that it even rivals her performance in one of my favorite (and one of the best) Stanley Kubrick movies, Eyes Wide Shut.

You also have Icelandic singer Bjork, who plays a deliciously creepy Seeress, and Willem Dafoe, who plays a mummified head (I’m serious) at one point. And, if you haven’t noticed yet, I haven’t even brought up the two main stars in Alexander Skarsgård, who portrays a viking Berserker named Amleth, and the always magnificent Anya Taylor-Joy as a sorceress named Olga.

Every single performance brings this movie to life and makes this ancient world feel like it just happened yesterday. Seriously, how did the Academy not nominate any of the actors for this movie? It’s criminal!

Alexander Skarsgård in The Northman.
Alexander Skarsgård in The Northman.

It Handles Heavy Subject Matters Like Trauma And Guilt In A Fascinating Manner

The Shakespearan play, Hamlet, and The Northman share a similar through line when it comes to their source material, as they’re both based on the same story. That said, they couldn’t feel any more different, save for the familial issues. The former feels like an existential journey of guilt, regret, and betrayal, while The Northman feels like a bloodstained fever dream.

Yet, they share a great many similarities, especially in the form of how they focus on trauma and regret. For example, Amleth regrets a great many things, but it also drives him to a point that he feels he can’t control, much like Hamlet. He’s also experienced tremendous trauma, which is mostly due to the harshness of his environment, which often feels like a character in itself.

However, these themes of regret and trauma are showcased through visually haunting imagery and scenes. One of my favorite moments in the entire movie is when a group of vikings do a chaotic, screaming fire dance to pump themselves up for the next day’s battle.

It’s hypnotic, and rather than having Amleth holding a skull and soliloquizing about the unfairness of existence, the film shows grown men practically tearing themselves out of their skins, like animals, which is how many of them must feel, due to the horrific acts they commit. Honestly, there really is no other film like it.

A valkyrie in The Northman
A valkyrie in The Northman

It Also Takes A Different Approach To Mythology

I love Norse mythology. Sure, Marvel’s Thor popularized it for a modern audience, and the recent God of War has showcased all of the familiar faces. But, I still feel like those two aforementioned sources are more like the greatest hits versions of Norse mythology, rather than taking a deep dive into the actual history.

That said, we get a great deal of that in The Northman. In the film, we see several instances of mythology in the form of soothsayers, a he-witch, and even a valkyrie, as well as talk of Valhalla.

But, none of it feels beautiful or heroic, as there are no shimmering rainbow bridges, or majestic shots of the halls of Asgard. Instead, it’s all rather hideous. We hear talk of their belief system, but never see the gods descend from the heavens.

In fact, in a lot of ways, it feels like what one of my favorite movies, Troy, did for Greek mythology, in that the characters speak of the gods, but we never actually see them.

The Northman also has the characters tripping on hallucinogenic drugs, which might explain why they’re occasionally seeing a screaming valkyrie in the night sky. It’s certainly something else.

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Northman
Anya Taylor-Joy in The Northman

The Cinematography Is Brutally Beautiful

Remember how much scorn I had earlier when I mentioned that Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse wasn’t up for Best Picture? Well, that movie was nominated for one Oscar, and it was for Best Cinematography. Ultimately, the film didn’t win, but it was definitely a well deserved nomination for that film’s cinematographer, Jarin Blaschke.

In fact, Blashke has done cinematography for all three of Eggers’ movies (as well as his current film, Nosferatu), and is probably just as important to the director’s films as are the stories themselves. That’s because Blaschke really knows how to make ugly things beautiful.

In The Witch, he took muted tones and interspersed brighter colors to punctuate important moments that really stuck out. In The Lighthouse, which was in black and white, he constantly toyed with lighting, which often made certain images disturbing and more detailed.

And, in The Northman, which is the most color-rich movie we’ve gotten out of Eggers, we get even more beauty, as there are similar tones as in The Witch, but also brilliant shots of color that really pop out on the screen. All of the landscapes appear grungy to the point that you practically feel the dirt underneath your nails, which only makes the film feel all the more authentic in its setting.

Honestly, I know very little about the art of cinematography, but what I do know is that The Northman is both beautiful, but also hard to look at at the same time, which seems to be this cinematographer’s trademark when it comes to Eggers’ movies.

A battle at a volcano in The Northman
A battle at a volcano in The Northman

The Last Fight Takes Place At A Volcano!

Lastly, I just have to mention that the film’s startling climax takes place at a freaking volcano! I’ve honestly tried my best to say as little about the plot as possible, since it takes a great many twists and turns, but I just can’t recommend this film enough without raving about how incredible the last few moments are, because like I said – it takes place at a volcano!

And, man, is it glorious to look at. I just raved about the cinematography, and this final fight is the purest example of that. Remember the last battle in Revenge of the Sith where Obi-Wan and Anakin are fighting amidst all of that roaring fire? Sure, it was cool and dramatic, but everything was so clear, and even clean-looking. You could see both of their faces as they gritted their teeth and swung their lightsabers.

That was fine for what it was, but it’s nothing compared to the visceral fight in The Northman, where the two challengers strip naked, and are mostly shown as silhouettes as they fight to the death.

There’s fire and brimstone, and it might as well be a battle in Hell (or rather, Hel, since this is Norse mythology). I mean, this one scene alone should be talked about regularly, and it bugs me that it isn’t, because it’s so freaking awesome!

Anyway, if other people aren’t going to keep raving about The Northman, then I will. For more news on Robert Eggers’ next film, Nosferatu, be sure to swing by here often.