When Eggers first released The Witch, his horror genre was undeniably described as «sublime». The New England filmmaker brought the stunning horror genre to life with a new diabolical glee for the sinister that pushed the sonic and visual possibilities of supernatural angst. In The Northerner, Eggers uses a graceful aesthetic and broader emotion played out on a larger scale, with his familiar interest in the inherent weirdness that pervades ancient mythology. This is the story of Amlet (Alexander Skarsgård), a hulking, furious Viking prince who seeks retribution for a lost kingdom in Scandinavia. To modern viewers, this legend is known from the famous English adaptation of Hamlet, which recalls Amlet’s unwavering determination, as implacable as a harsh landscape, to reclaim his usurped crown.
However, this is not your typical hero’s journey filled with a dashing kingdom. Amleth refers to a different, more severe kill-or-be-killed era, when no higher honor can fall to a king than to die by the blade. His father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), recently returned from war, scarred and wounded, worships this reality, preparing his young son for possible bloodshed: a carnal ritual taking place in a smoky otherworldly cavern that includes a mystical invocation to the ancestors at the head with Heimir the Fool (the deranged Willem Dafoe), causing Amleth and Aurvandill to howl and howl on all fours like wolves. In the world of The Northerner, we are all just rabid animals, occupying flabby sacks of human skin. The only obligations we have are paramount: to avenge our father and protect our mother and the kingdom. It is an oath also made by his mother, Queen Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), and ignored by his uncle, the imposing black-bearded Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who of course brings tragedy into the life of young Amlet, killing his father, forcing his distant shores where he becomes an embittered muscular warrior.
Directed by Djarin Blaschke and edited by Louise Ford (Eggers’ collaborators on The Lighthouse and The Witch), much of the film relies on a polished visual flair, employing more camera movement than usual for a director. A brutal scene involving Amleth and a gang of skin-clad Vikings covered in bearskin headdresses, edited with the utmost clarity by Ford, shows the pack methodically attacking a village for the kill. The carefully crafted follow-up shot that accompanies this scene fuels the camera’s insane appetite for flesh, with bodies covered in blood and blood-curdling macho screams coming from ravenous men. In one shot, reminiscent of Elem Klimov’s anti-war film Come and See, a burning house filled with weeping villagers serves as the backdrop for Amlet’s unwavering gaze into the camera. Unlike Klimov’s film, this is not the image of a boy who is horrified by the war. This is a wild and defiant person, fueled by conflict and bloodshed.