The Therapy Diaries Chapter 15: The Northman

Controversial opinion: the Judeo-Christian God is really boring. What, just one dude, supposedly white and beardy, sits on a cloud with the angels and makes sure no one masturbates, and no men fuck each other? Boooooooooooring.

Look at Hinduism, for example. They have Ganesha, a person with an elephant head and four arms. Or Shiva, the God of Time and Arts. And destruction. That’s right, the God of destruction. So much more interesting than your ‘God’, who’s boring as shit.

You know which other Gods are awesome? The Norse Gods. Loki, God of mischief. Thor, God of lightning, with his big ol’ fucking hammer. And Odin, God of Gods, up there in Valhalla watching shit go down. Valhalla, of course, being a place you only get to if you die in battle. Norse Gods are fucking bad ass. And they make for bad ass subjects too. The Vikings were a bad ass bunch of people. Terrible people, raping and pillaging their way across Europe, but bad ass still. And that’s a good word to describe The Northman: it’s fucking bad ass.

Firstly, I should point out that this is an incredibly biased review. I love the works of Robert Eggers, in particular The VVitch and The Lighthouse. They’re both intense, moody, emotionally draining, confusing, belief-suspending films. Much like The Northman. They use atmosphere as a weapon, beat you about the head with it. Much like The Northman. And they’re grim, gritty, and fucking real. Much like The Northman.

Being so biased, I walked into the cinema – well drove, but stop being pedantic – expecting good things. Expecting big, grand things. Expecting to be blown away, literally and metaphorically. And I very much was.

One of the things I love most about Eggers’ films is that they flip your expectations. I remember walking out of The VVitch when I saw it in the cinema hating it. I had been expecting a classic horror film, a witchy witch in New England killing people left, right, and centre in witchy ways. The film did not deliver. However, when I realised that it wasn’t that the film was bad, but that I’d approached it in the wrong frame of mind, I watched it again. And loved it. And have watched it a bunch of times since, and loved it each time. You see it isn’t a ‘normal’ film about a witch, it subverts your expectations and delivers something you couldn’t possibly have imagined.

The Lighthouse is the same. Yes, it is a film about two men in a lighthouse, but anyone who says they expected…that is a liar. No one could have anticipated the film Eggers gave us. And it’s amazing.

And so to The Northman. Again, Eggers teases us with something straightforward, but then delivers something else completely. The idea behind The Northman is that a lovely man decides to kill his brother, who happens to be king. He claims his kingdom, and his wife, and orders his subjects to kill the king’s son, his nephew. The nephew escapes, the subject who lets him escape lies and says he’s dead, and everyone goes on their merry way.

And that’s basically where the normality ends.

Fast forward a few years and the son is all grown up, and wants revenge. He still wears the necklace his father gave him shortly before his murder, and it’s his token, his talisman. He treasures it as if it were his father himself, and in many ways it’s the necklace that spurs him on.

I’m not going to drop any spoilers in this review, but suffice it to say, in true Eggers form, shit gets weird. Like, real weird. That’s why I opened up with talking about the Judeo-Christian God. So boring. The Norse gods? They let shit get out of control. Really, that’s the only way I can describe it. The son, Amleth, follows his quest for revenge as fate from the Gods, and at no point deviates from their path. And their path is real fucking weird. But it’s also amazing, enjoyable, and honestly? No less believable than some of the shit the Judeo-Christian God is supposed to have done. Burning bushes and sons killing their children, all that jazz.

Story aside, the film has Eggers’ fingerprints all over it. His use of colour is incredible; this film isn’t in black and white like The Lighthouse, and yet, because of when it’s set (895AD, and then ‘years later’) a lot of the film takes place in the dark, in darkened rooms, or on a farm at night, when light is at a premium. It’s a colour film that feels black and white at times, and this lack of colour perfectly suits the tone of the film, which is incredibly dark.

The tone is set by Amleth’s loss, and search for revenge. It’s a brooding film, moving at a very slow pace, going as slowly as it chooses to, so it doesn’t misrepresent, or even miss, anything. That’s one of the things I love about Eggers and his work: he does what he wants, and doesn’t try to please anyone. Too much of Hollywood cinema is by the book, following the same old formula. Eggers sets that formula on fire and does what he wants.

Speaking of fire, there’s a section late in the film that takes place at night, and so is virtually black and white, but takes place where there’s lava flow, which gives the scene it’s only colour. And by God, it’s incredible. Eggers use of contrast in this film, and all his films, is incredible. It’s what gives him such an aura of starkness, of duality. Someone recently asked me what The Lighthouse is about, and all I could say was just that: the duality of man. Well, that’s exactly what The Northman is about too.

As well as being cinematically fantastic, the film is also written incredibly, and the cast is spectacular. A lot of the usual Eggers favourites who up: Anya Taylor-Joy, Willem Dafoe, Kate Dickie, Ralph Ineson. We’re treated to some other familiar faces, such as Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, and for no apparent reason Bjork is in it. Bjork! What a blast from the past – if you remember the 90s at least, which I very much do.

The entire cast is excellent. Anya Taylor-Joy, as she is in everything, is an absolute delight to watch. Willem Dafoe is Willem Dafoe, so obviously great. Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, everyone else; they all play their parts incredibly.

I almost fucking finished without praising Alexander Skarsgard, who plays adult Amleth. He’s incredible. He’s buffed the fuck up for this film, and looks like the beast he plays. He simultaneously horrible, horrifying, hopeful, charismatic, sexy, and believable. I think that’s one of my main takeaways of this film, that it’s nearly believable. Not entirely, but nearly. Certainly more believable than The Passion of the Christ!

Happy Easter!

The Northman is out in cinemas right now, and if you don’t go see it you’re a fool.

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  1. Pingback: The Therapy Diaries Chapter 16: This Ozark character is actually Jesus - Robert Welbourn, Author

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