Visually incredible Viking epic The Northman feels almost entirely uncompromising

Filmmaker Robert Eggers follows up The Witch and The Lighthouse with Viking revenge epic The Northman, set in 10th Century Iceland and following a Nordic prince seeking justice for his murdered father. As Tony Stamp writes, it’s downright shocking what gory and grotty violence Eggers was able to display in this major motion picture.

In 2015, The Witch knocked the wind out of arthouse filmgoers, introducing director Robert Eggers as a striking new talent and making Anya Taylor-Joy an overnight star. Four years later, The Lighthouse made it to screens, presenting an even more esoteric vision; a gothic black and white comedy of sorts that cemented Eggers as an auteur.

Those two were made for indie darlings A24, so when the filmmaker’s third film The Northman was announced to be coming from Universal, it raised the question of whether his sensibilities would remain intact under the watchful eye of a major studio.

The answer is almost entirely yes. Eggers has been vocal in the press about this being the first film of his where he didn’t get final cut, leading to a difficult post-production phase that presumably involved a lot of arguments. He also said he knew what he was signing up for—including a much larger budget than usual—and that he wanted The Northman to appeal to a broad audience, and needed the studio’s help achieving that.

The finished product has a few moments of lightness that suggest studio notes, but as far as something audience-friendly? This is most certainly not that. The good news is, if a gruelling Viking epic over two hours in length sounds appealing, Eggers has you covered.

The director’s trademarks are everywhere: fanatically-researched period detail (that will frequently leave viewers scratching their heads, particularly where dialogue is concerned)? Check. Meticulous shot composition and camera moves? Check. All manner of viscera thrown at the screen, as well as myriad psychedelic hallucinations? Oh yes.

There’s a moment where someone is beheaded, and their severed head is casually placed facing up their butt, that not only speaks volumes about Eggers’ attraction to the gory and grotty (and era-appropriate violence—I guarantee it’s based in fact) but is downright shocking to see in a major motion picture. And there’s plenty more where that came from.

Alexander Skarsgård is perfect casting, not just because of his absurdly swollen physique (looking at his shoulders in this movie is visually confounding), and not just because of his ability to become animalistic (emulating a bear in certain scenes to terrifying effect), but because when he’s called on to regress back to childhood, it’s uncanny. His eyes widen and his boyish face emerges, and it’s like you’re watching him shrink.

Taylor-Joy acquits herself as well as you’d expect, as do Claes Bang and Ethan Hawke, but the other stand-out cast member is Nicole Kidman, who gets a scene late in the film to really cut loose, and boy does she go for it.

I’d be lying if I said The Northman was a fun watch. Its surface-level thesis statement might as well be ‘wasn’t life in Viking times garbage?’ But there’s plenty going on subtextually, and it’s never less than visually incredible. Eggers has smuggled a savage, downbeat saga into theatres that feels (no matter what happened behind the scenes), almost entirely uncompromising.