Real Men Bite Off Noses
It’s the era of toxic masculinity—reveling in it (MAGA world) or critiquing it (“The Power of the Dog”). And of wallowing in myth and mythical creatures—Harry Potter, Marvel superheroes, “The Green Knight.” Robert Eggers, a challenging director (“The Witch,” “The Lighthouse”) tries his hand at all these in his (and noted Icelandic author Sjón’s) retelling of the Danish myth on which William Shakespeare based “Hamlet.”
Set in 900s Iceland, there’s a king murdered by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) who takes the throne and wife; a queen whose sexual desires are explicit and who willingly shares a bed with her husband’s murderer; fates, furies, and above all, a son bent on revenge. In Eggers’ telling, the son does not famously deliberate (“To be or not to be”), he plunges into his role: “I will avenge you, Father! I will save you, Mother! I will kill you, Fjölnir!” He’s told by seers and soothsayers that he cannot escape his fate, and, like the protagonists in Greek plays, he cannot. There’s a hint of an alternative future, but it’s too little, too late.
The cast of “The Northman” is stunning: Alexander Skarsgård’s piercing blue eyes and handsome yet terrifying face of revenge dominate in this portrayal of Amleth, a far cry from Skarsgård’s louche, Elon Musk-like character in TV’s “Succession.” Nicole Kidman is similarly intimidating as the sexualized Queen Gudrún; she spins a tale of Amleth’s father that paints a very different portrait of the hero Amleth seeks to avenge. Ethan Hawke is the murdered king, Anya Taylor-Joy (of TV’s “The Queen’s Gambit”) the love interest, and Willem Dafoe the Shakespeare-like Fool (and Yorick-like skull). Native Icelander Bjork makes an appearance as the blind Seeress and haunting singer.
Blood and gore are everywhere. Heads are lopped off, hearts cut out, noses eaten, heads butted; people are crucified, literally. Naked men dance around the fire banging on drums. The characters have names such as Hallgrímr Half-Troll, Finnr The Nose-Stub, Hersveinn Battle Hard, Hjalti Battle Hasty. Eggers is particularly adept at thrusting men (mostly) into the harshest of environments—here, an Iceland gorgeous in its barrenness—to see how they will fare, alone and with each other.
The sound of the film is powerful as well, perhaps channeling an earlier era’s heavy metal (Iron Maiden, 1975-, Slayer, 1981-, Manowar, 1980-, and many other bands) and the crisis in masculinity that was central to its culture. A common body movement within heavy metal was head-banging; a 1980s variant, Death Metal, incorporated “death growls.” Both reflect the desire to construct a new masculinity through a return to the “primitive” self, an idea best captured in Robert Bly’s 1990 classic, “Iron John: A Book About Men.” And both have resonance for the film.
Yet “The Northman” does not rise to the level of exploring the issues it raises: masculinity, fate, love, truth, Freudian sexuality. The film remains mired in its superhero world—lots of shock and awe in sound and setting, and not enough substance.
Myths abound. Not just Hamlet’s story, there are Christian myths too—the sword and the stone, the quest (Greek or Christian), even Spartacus leading the slaves, though Amleth isn’t much of a leader. One can play the game of “name that myth,” but the proliferation of references does not produce an exploration of ideas. For all its weaknesses, “The Green Knight” brought myth into the present by ironizing its protagonist. “The Northman” reduces the hero to his fate: pure revenge.
Stars: 2 (out of 4)
Director: Robert Eggers
Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Anna Taylor-Joy, Claes Bang, Willem Dafoe
Runtime: 137 minutes
Country: United States
Languages: English, Old Norse (the latter sometimes subtitled in English)
Availability: In theaters now; for future streaming availability, see JustWatch here.
Lead image: Skarsgård’s Amleth is a far cry from his louche, Elon Musk-like character in TV’s “Succession.”