The Northman

The Northman ★★★★

"There is no such thing as an anti-war film." So goes the (possibly apocryphal) Francois Truffaut quote arguing that any movie that depicts the events of war will inevitably glorify violence. I don't really think this is accurate, but I get what it is grasping at. To authentically depict anything--be it war or space travel or the inner workings of the Mafia--you must tap into the allure of that world or that pursuit. It's counterintuitive, but "realistic" portrayal often has the effect of romanticizing the subject matter, not because the portrayal is gauzy and false, but because to see a world through the eyes of people who live in it is to understand what makes that life resonant. Art is an empathy machine.

I thought about all of this as I was driving home from my late night showing of The Northman, Robert Eggers new primal revenge epic. Some of the pre-release discussion of the movie has focused on a question of whether Eggers is glorifying archaic values, including misogyny and white supremacy, that permeate the milieu of 9th-10th century Scandinavia. Most of this discourse is the usual, mindless confusion over depiction vs. endorsement, and scandalmongering for clicks, but there's a kernel of what's essential to the film's potency in these debates. The Northman absolutely revels in the cinematic and gruesomely evocative elements of Viking culture. This was a violent time and men proficient in violence were rewarded for their skills. Eggers lets us feel the camaraderie between warriors and the intoxicating power of domination. Most importantly, he introduces us to this world through the eyes of a spoiled child. We see things from the perspective of young prince Amleth and it is through his eyes that we come to understand the central conflict: his beloved father was murdered by his uncle, who has also taken his mother for a wife. Amleth is forced to flee for his life, completely alone in the world. He takes up with a band of marauding Viking warriors and dedicates his entire existence to revenge.

Using a child's perspective to shape the audience's view is a potent trick for getting us on board with behavior that might be repulsive in another context. Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas is probably the most notable exemplar of this form, showing us young Henry Hill's seduction by the lure of organized crime in his neighborhood. Goodfellas is a movie where people manage to think that mob life is being glorified, even as we watch a bunch of low-level schnucks murdering each other for the right to live in slightly tackier Long Island suburban houses. Scorsese makes that repulsive world enticing, not by glamorizing it beyond reality, but by focusing his attention on the community it provides to the men who live in that world. The Northman is similar in that it conveys the rewards of testosterone-fueled carnage by grounding us in a child's understanding of right and wrong. Even when Amleth is grown, he can ignore the mass murder of innocents at the hands of his compatriots because their plight isn't his plight. He and his family are the center of the universe and all the other suffering is incidental. But Eggers doesn't believe this and he is meticulous about depicting that suffering at every point along the way. Amleth may not notice, but we should. And even if you manage to miss that message along the way, Eggers hits you right between the eyes with the moral ambiguity that young Amleth completely missed during a crucial lafe scene where he finally speaks to his mother and learns her perspective on what went down.

The other really potent thing that The Northman is doing is playing with notions of fate and destiny. We're so used to fate as a storytelling convention that when The Northman lays out a destiny for our hero (as foretold by the reliable prognosticator that is Bjork) we are ready to go along for the ride just as Amleth does. But Eggers has an interesting spin on this too. He presents fate as a tangible, observable thing, through the use of psychedelic magical ritual, but also hints at the idea that all of it is rationalization for Amleth to preserve his father's simplified view of glory, of life and afterlife. The other key moment in the movie is when Amleth is presented with an alternate path, complete with love and family, but must relinquish his worldview in order to seize it. Eggers manages to include just enough mystical elements to allow you to see his choice as fate taking a hand, but there's an unmistakable sense that Amleth's fate is what me chooses to make. The culmination of his choice is aesthetically satisfying, but that's because it's his own presentation of his story. And that's another thing that The Northman has in common with Goodfellas: both movies recognize that the most "badass" stuff is also flatly ridiculous, and they let those two impressions sit side by side.

The only thing really holding The Northman back for me is the essential limitations of the central character. It's no fault of Alexander Skarsgard that Amleth is kind of an emtpy vessel with great abs, but the movie still suffers a bit from lacking fully realized central character. The glimpses we get of more complicated people at the margins of the story only serve to make Amleth's stunted worldview more grating over the course of a long movie. Again, I think this is the character Eggers and Skarsgard want to portray, but there's a reason we typically want to follow people with slightly more going on.

So that's The Northman. It rips, and you should go see it on the big screen so more movies like it can be made. It looks approximately 400 times better than the most attractive Marvel movie and reinforces the long-standing truth that great locations are the ultimate special effect. It will also make you glad you aren't a woman in the 10th century if that was ever a thing you had wondered about.

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