A lot of what happens in The Northman, Robert Eggers’ Viking epic from last year, doesn’t make any sense. Or at least, it doesn’t make sense to modern standards. The film (which is currently on Peacock) is a brutal tale of revenge. Young Prince Amleth’s father has been murdered by his uncle, who has usurped his throne and married his widow, Amleth’s mother. An older Amleth (an impossibly jacked Alexander Skarsgård) grows up as a berserker with no purpose until a prophecy reminds him of his duty, and he travels to Iceland to do what must be done.
How Robert Eggers' The Northman Defies Modern Standards
Revenge stories are not uncommon in modern movies. Typically, they come with an inherent understanding of the barbarism that’s so often essential to the act of seeking revenge — to quote a phrase misattributed to Confusious, “Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.” Even when the revenge-seeking in most modern films is justified, as in Kill Bill, John Wick, or The Revenant, there’s a nagging reluctance to fully endorse this eye-for-an-eye violence. We cheer John Wick’s rampage, but we’re also meant to lament that he’s “thinkin’ he’s back,” even as we’re glad he is for the sake of our entertainment. Gladiator, another revenge-minded movie set in ancient times, almost goes too far in the other direction. There’s a sense of desperate nobility to Maximus’ quest for vengeance in this life or the next.
The key throughline in all these revenge tales is that the central quest is framed, in some way, around our understanding of what revenge should be and look like as a modern audience. And, typically moviegoing audiences don’t personally have much personal experience with a bloody quest for vengeance at all costs. That means there’s usually a “tsk-tsking” of the acts, an attempt to rationalize them, or something else that makes revenge understandable as an act in the abstract.
The Northman, which is heavily inspired by Norse mythology, pointedly makes no effort to adhere to any modern sense of morality or even logic. The world of the Northman is a world where the mundane and the spiritual are one. When Amleth has prophetic visions, the film is not trying to signal that he’s crazy or thinks he sees something, nor is it going the High Fantasy route and making magic “real.” Instead, this is just what belief — and by extension, life — was in the early 10th Century. The Northman is not a historical epic nor a fantasy one. To Eggers, they’re one and the same.
Photo: Focus Features
Amleth’s journey is, even by revenge-seeking standards, not a typical one. Without spoiling the film’s fiery, dramatic climax, it should not be a shock to say this gruesome and grim movie about a gruesome and grim period of history does not have a sunny ending. Amleth makes choices that are self-destructive, that don’t make rational sense. There are times when he could have easily walked away from his quest for vengeance. Indeed, watching it in the 21st Century, you almost want to yell at the screen that he should have walked away.
But Amleth isn’t in the 21st Century. He’s in the 10th Century, and The Northman endorses — or at least fully depicts — his belief system and his way of life at this time in the world. If this makes the movie sometimes difficult to watch, that’s a fair price to pay. It’s not often that you see a big-budget movie so disinterested in the present day it’s being released into. It feels like a horrible time machine in the best possible way.