'The Northman' review: Vanquish thy enemy, and pass the popcorn

The latest from Robert Eggers stars a carved-out-of-wood Alexander Skarsgård and goes all the way up to 11.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

It's a black metal Hamlet, a visceral, chugging, brute force tale of violence, vengeance and fate. 

"The Northman" is both highly literate and resoundingly straightforward, told with an ear for the poetic and an eye for clarity by director and co-writer Robert Eggers. He's the nouveau classicist who made 2016's chilling 17th century horror story "The Witch" and 2019's hypnotizing isolation fable "The Lighthouse," and here he weaves his most brutally effective yarn yet, a revenge epic built on themes of myth, power and destiny. It's a barbaric, unrelenting, skull-rocking good time.   

Alexander Skarsgård in "The Northman."

It's the late 9th century and Viking warrior prince Amleth watches at a young age as his father, King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), is beheaded by his brother, Fjölnir the Brotherless (Claes Bang). Then and there, Amleth knows his mission in life is to avenge his father's death. But patiently he must wait, plotting the right path to seize his moment.  

Years later (and now played by a ripped to the gills Alexander Skarsgård), Amleth travels to Iceland and becomes a slave in Fjölnir's army and meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy, who previously teamed with Eggers on "The Witch"), a sorceress who aids him on his quest. Along the way he encounters a prophet who foretells the future (Björk, naturally), Fjölnir's sniveling son Thorir the Proud (Gustav Lindh) and various berserkers, He-Witches and yes, his mother (Nicole Kidman), leaving a bloody trail in his wake. The intensity level is as high as the violence, and the violence is enough to make "Braveheart" look like a stoner comedy.  

Eggers, who co-wrote the screenplay with Björk collaborator Sjón, is painstakingly detail oriented when it comes to dialogue, and you can get lost in the lushness of the composition of his words. But he always gets his point across, and the story is easy to follow, shepherding the viewer along every step of the way even if they don't have a degree in 1,000-year-old linguistics. 

The visuals are rich as well; some internal scenes are lit by flickering candlelight, and the climax takes place on an active volcano, or "The Gates of Hell," as it's referred to in the film. "The Northman" feels like the culmination of Eggers' powers as a writer and director, taking his knack for creating moody atmosphere and his gift for words and staging them on an epic canvas. It's savage and raw, a tour de force caked in blood. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'The Northman'

GRADE: B+

Rated R: for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity

Running time: 136 minutes

In theaters