The Northman

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The Northman movie

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Bob Hoose

Movie Review

I will avenge my father. I will save my mother. I will kill my uncle.

Amleth whispers those teeth-clenched words over and over as he pulls away from shore, straining with all his remaining strength at the small skiff’s oars. He had seen his father betrayed and riddled with arrows that night.

I will avenge my father. I will save my mother. I will kill my uncle.

His father, the king, had been beheaded by his own brother. His kingdom stolen. And then as Amleth ran through the village—hiding and running from building to building to avoid his uncle’s men—he saw his fair mother grabbed and tossed over a strong shoulder like a bag of grain.

I will avenge my father. I will save my mother. I will kill my uncle.

But even keen-eyed warriors can’t always catch sight of a small boy hiding in the streets. And so Amleth finds his way to the docks and leaves the vile carnage of the village behind.

It may take time: he’ll need experience at killing, years of hardened muscle and many scars before he’s ready. But someday he will return … to avenge his father, save his mother and kill one hated man.

That is a vow that Odin will not fail to hear.

It is young prince Amleth’s destined and bloody fate.

Positive Elements

Through most of the film, Amleth appears to be nothing more than a heartless man set on some form of savage vengeance. But he is touched by the charms of an earth mystic named Olga. He even exposes himself to great harm to protect her—something he would normally not do.

There is a brief moment when it appears that Amleth’s feelings for Olga might cause him to change direction, perhaps to push against his fate and raise a family. (But fate and Odin’s will win out.)

During a ritual with his father, Amleth swears he will safeguard his family and live in honor. (Though how, exactly, he keeps those vows is left open to a bloody interpretation.)

Spiritual Elements

From the film’s opening moments until the Valkyrie’s flying horse ride to heaven at the movie’s close, The Northman is jam-packed with Norse mythology.

There are numerous references to Norse lore and old Norse gods here. As a coming-of-age ritual, for instance, Amleth and his father walk through a ceremony of devotion to Odin. They crawl around and howl like wolve before a large stone altar and take vows to the gods together. Amleth has a vision of his royal lineage’s “tree of kings”: a large tree littered with skeletons, corpses and living men.

Throughout Amleth’s life, Odin shows up in a variety of forms—as a witch; a shaman; a flock of crows; and as a ghostly, bearded image—to remind Amleth of his unwavering and unavoidable fate.

Indeed, the film declares that mans’ fate is predetermined and set. An individual’s will is a part of life; but a person’s decisions only reallreall matter insofar as they entertains the gods’ fancy and eventually lead to the expected outcome. Whenever Amleth veers even slightly from his path of fate, it results in his pain and injury.

Odin, in shaman form, holds up a man’s desiccated head and that lopped off noggin talks to Amleth and gives him some fate-focused guidance. Amleth also gives battle to a huge, undead Viking in a quest to obtain a deadly blood weapon that can only be drawn at night.

When Amleth first meets Olga, she is known by others as a “spell speaker,” a mystic who communes with the earth gods. We see her chanting spells in a foreign tongue and speaking to those spirits on several occasions. She and Amleth both have visions about the future of their union. In fact, when Amleth first tells her of his quest to kill Fjölnir, his uncle, she tells him: “Your strength breaks men’s bones; I’m coming to break their minds.”

We see others, including Fjölnir, pray to Odin for guidance. When some of Fjölnir’s men are butchered and then hung up in a ritualistic manner, the chieftain wonders if it’s his Christian slaves (foreign captives who are branded with the image of a cross) who have done the horrible deed. One of Fjölnir’s men reasons that it must be the Christians at fault since “their god is a corpse nailed to a tree.”

In response to this murder, Fjölnir has a witch go about the process of sacrificing one of the Christian slaves. However, Amleth upends the killing, setting the female slave free and instead sacrificing the witch and her assistant.

During a funeral for one of Fjölnir’s sons, a horse is beheaded and the blood sprinkled about. And then a female singer is also killed and placed on the same floating skiff that’s used as a funeral pyre for the corpse. Later we see two corpses laid out beside a dead, beheaded horse in a similar makeshift funeral near a hillside.

A screaming Valkyrie in full armor rides up into the heavens with a man’s corpse in tow.

Sexual Content

A large group of men and women run naked in the woods during a celebration. We see them embracing and kissing and then having sex on the ground and up against trees. It’s during this sequence that Amleth and Olga slip away to get intimate in the woods as well. We see them writhing naked on the ground together and the camera watches closely as they have sex and then cuddle and talk afterward. (Both are fully naked with key areas strategically covered.) Later we see the pair naked in a hot spring, where her bare backside is completely visible.

A young Amleth runs in to see his mother, catching her as she is just slipping into a cotton shift—exposing her legs and a quick glimpse of her backside. A court jester makes some sexual quips about a man’s arousal. We see men whipping themselves into a savage rage before a battle—all shirtless in either breeches or loincloths.

Amleth learns that his mother sexually betrayed his father with another man. She tells him that the king’s “affection was only for silver and rutting his whores.”

When Fjölnir first sees Olga, he’s taken by her beauty and asks that she be made available for his pleasure. Later, he to pull her aside for sex, but she declares that it’s during her menstrual cycle. Pulling up her skirts, she removes her blood-soaked cloth and shoves it in his face.

Then Amleth’s mother tries to seduce him, caressing and kissing him and promising that he could be her new king. We see Fjölnir naked from the rear while conducting a funeral. And later he and Amleth both battle each other while fully naked. They fight in front of a glowing lake of lava, however, so much of the action is seen in silhouette and only partially lit.

Violent Content

This grim story unleashes viscerally savage and graphically realistic images of death-dealing. We witness an unending stream of that barbarous destruction.

After the film’s opening moments, for instance, Amleth’s father comes back from a months-long Viking raid with slaves in tow and a horrid gash in his abdomen. He unwraps the bloody wound to show his son and sticks the boy’s fingers into its gore. Soon after that, he gets attacked by betrayers from his own clan who hit him with several arrows. As he struggles to fight them off, they drive spears into him and finally behead him.

While on his own, the young Amleth is taken in by another group of Vikings who raise him in the ways of war. These battlers whip themselves into a howling frenzy before combat and then storm forts to butcher every living person there except those suitable for human slavery. Covered head to foot in blood, we see them hack away at men, women and children with raging glee. An adult and hugely muscled Amleth joins them. We see him attack one man and rip the man’s neck open with his teeth, sucking in the flesh and gore before howling like a beast.

Upon setting off on his quest for vengeance, Amleth brands himself with a searing branding iron to pass as a slave. And then, after being accepted into a group of slave laborers, he unleashes a string of terrorist-like attacks on his unsuspecting captors. He kills several night guards, for instance, and then hacks their bodies into pieces to create a grotesque collage of flesh and wooden pikes.

Amleth participates in a hard-hitting, and in some cases, deadly game held by slaves for the amusement of the Viking clansmen. In it, men are pummeled with sticks and bash at each other while trying to score goals. At one point, a young boy runs onto the field and a huge competitor slams the boy to the ground, knocking him unconscious. That bear-like man then moves to strike the boy a deadly blow before Amleth runs in to save him—crushing the man’s skull with repeated blows from his own.

We see many hacked and slashed battlers. Men are stabbed repeatedly. Limbs and heads are lopped off, throats slashed. One wounded man hobbles into a hut before his slashed open entrails spill out onto the floor. Another naked man is hung upside down by his feet, his entrails hanging out and his genitals removed. Amleth kills a young man and then cuts out his heart to keep for future needs.

In addition to all that, Amleth is beaten down when he faces too many foes alone. He’s strung up and tortured. We see him stabbed and slashed repeatedly.

After a raiding party of Vikings takes a town, we see the warriors feasting and passing the village’s attractive women around for implied sexual acts. (The women are battered and weeping but clothed when we see them.)

Crude or Profane Language

There are several uses of the word “b–tard” and a couple references to “H—.”

Drug and Alcohol Content

Men drink with abandon after several different battles and contests. Some getting decidedly inebriated. Olga uses a special mushroom to create a soup with hallucinogenic properties that cause men to fall unconscious and/or see terrible visions, in some cases to the point of stabbing themselves. Amleth and his father lap up bowls of some sort of drug-laced beverage that give them a shared vision.

Other Negative Elements

Amleth and his father pass gas as a part of a ritual. After Amleth fights an undead creature, he beheads it and sticks its face into its own backside.

Men get drunk and vomit. A drugged soup causes several to vomit as well.

Conclusion

The Northman is dark, angry and brutal. Director Robert Eggers’ ambitious take on a fatalistic tale of vengeance and death—”the story of a prince destined for Valhalla”—is how a bloody piece of Norse mythology might look if filmed with a cinematographer’s eye. It feels mercilessly authentic: a grunting, raging, muscle-straining bellow translated to movie form.

Of course, that doesn’t make it entertaining, per se. One shouldn’t go in expecting an interesting or redeeming storyline, or characters that you can care about. Or anything with heart, for that matter. This pic plods and hacks in a predictable and bloody straight line, and its resolution is as inescapable as it proclaims old Norse mystic fate to be.

Put simply, this is a film of heavily muscled men raging, rutting and ravaging while Norse gods pull their puppet strings.

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Bob Hoose

After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.