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The Northman

Director Robert Eggers has been called a visionary based on his first two small, independent films “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse”, both of which were interesting but left me more confused than dazed.

With a big budget, stellar cast, and an apparent love of 1980’s “Conan the Barbarian”, Eggers has unleashed the first film of his that I would truly call visionary. I’d also dub it epic, brutal and unhinged.

It’s as close as Eggers is likely to come to a mainstream film, but he sacrifices none of the eccentricity that has become his trademark, a fact that will surely leave unexpected audiences scratching their heads.

We meet Ethan Hawke, reliably great as King Aurvandil War-Raven, returning from battle to Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman) and their young son, Prince Amleth (Elliott Rose). Battle wounded and weary, the King brings Amleth through a hallucinogenic rite-of-passage ceremony led by Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe, perfectly cast). The sequence reminded me of “Altered States” in its violent, scrolling imagery.

Emerging from the ritual, the King is savagely murdered by his brother Fjonir the Brotherless (Claes Bang) who kidnaps the Queen and hunts for Amleth. The young prince escapes onto a boiling sea, swearing revenge.

This is all in the first 15 minutes and shown in the trailers, so I’m not giving away any spoilers here. We flash forward to Amleth, now portrayed by ripped goliath Alexander Skarsgard.

Skarsgard is a force of nature. He’s never been better.

Eggers separates the film into chapters that I’ll review little more about here, as many contain surprise turns on Amleth’s lifelong quest for revenge against his Uncle Fjonir.

That journey is steeped in deception and secrets. Many of the main characters hold deep mystery beneath their blood-soaked pelts.

Eggers shows his love of John Milius’ 80’s-classic Conan. The opening sequence features the same pounding timpani drums as a narrator belts out baritone passages about the quest we are about to see. Eggers tops that film by turning those roaring drums into a twisted, screaming chorus and full tilt orchestra that tears through your chest at all the right moments. I saw it in a Dolby Cinema and the music about blew me out my chair. Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough write every note to disturb you.

The cinematography by Jarin Blaschke (The Lighthouse) is excellent. One attack starts with Amleth and his Viking band hiding in the bushes and then attacking a fortress wall with brutality. The camera never stops, going up and over the wall with Skarsgard as he climbs the wall using an ax, kills countless enemies inside & outside the fort while fending off attack after attack. Brilliantly staged and shot, the sequence starts with Amleth catching a spear launched at him, pivoting and throwing it into the chest of the man that threw it twenty yards away.

Picture the opener of “Saving Private Ryan” covered in mud, smoke and Viking lore, then double the brutality and you’re getting close.

Intestines spill, heads fall and the music score screams in your ears.

Somehow, Eggers has created a massive action epic without losing his ability to stamp the material with his own odd watermark.

The entire cast rips headlong into the material. Kidman and Skarsgard offer the biggest shocks. Kidman’s are in her portrayal of a Queen with unexpected depth and Skarsgard in the sheer, unrelenting ferocity of his thirst for revenge. The dude is a superhero. Schwarzenegger’s Conan was a giant killing machine with a taste for a punch line. Skarsgard’s Amleth is a tortured, bottomless pit of sword wielding vengeance. That gives the film’s final half, and Amleth’s relationship with Olga of the Birch Forest (Eggers reliable cast member Anya Taylor-Joy) much more depth and the decisions they both make impactful.

If I’ve made THE NORTHMAN sound like a standard sword & sorcery flick, don’t be deceived.

Bjork shows up perfectly cast as a mystical oracle.

Dafoe’s decapitated head offers advice at a critical moment.

Horses ride through the air toward Valhalla.

Volcano’s open up and people battle naked at the gates of hell.

If Director Ken Russell owned crazy in the 70’s and Paul Verhoeven carried the mantle in the 90’s, surely it’s time to acknowledge that torch is firmly in the hands of Eggers.

Half mad and all entertaining, THE NORTHMAN gets a solid B+.

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