“Now could I drink hot blood,” says Shakespeare’s Hamlet in Act III, scheming to kill his traitorous uncle Claudius as an act of revenge for his own father’s murder. As is usually the case for the waffling Danish prince, the threat is all talk. It won’t be until the end of Act V, amid the play’s climactic swirl of intended and accidental deaths, that Claudius, along with Hamlet himself, his mother, and his already-dead girlfriend’s brother, is finally dispatched. Indeed, if there’s one trait most audiences associate with the character of Hamlet, it’s his self-searching introspection about the meaning of the act of killing and, by extension, of human life.
No such doubts are entertained by Amleth, the Viking-era version of the Scandinavian prince played with monomaniacal fury by Alexander Skarsgård in Robert Eggers’ blood-soaked medieval fantasy The Northman. When he is still a preteen (played in early scenes by Oscar Novak), Amleth is guided by his warrior-king father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke), through an atavistic coming-of-age ritual best described as a werewolf bar mitzvah. (Spooky! Scary!) Emerging from the hut where the rite was performed, young Amleth watches in horror as his traitorous uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) beheads the king in front of the child’s own eyes, then carries off his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), before sending a henchman to kill the child as well. The traumatized young royal vows, as he escapes alone in a rowboat, to avenge his beloved father’s death at all costs.
Two decades later, Amleth has grown up to be the least introspective and least hesitant killer imaginable: He is a berserker, one of a band of roving warriors who psych themselves up for their village-pillaging sprees by donning wolves’ pelts and baying at the moon. Amleth doesn’t just speculate about drinking hot blood. He quaffs it freely, sometimes by literally tearing out his victims’ throats with his teeth. He’s also down to eviscerate, impale, decapitate, or throttle—though unlike some of his fellow marauders, he does draw the line at violence against women, sexual or otherwise.
After one especially epic berserking session in the “Land of the Rus” (all the scene changes are identified by runic intertitles), Amleth encounters a Slavic seeress (the Icelandic singer Björk, giving her first performance in a major movie since 2005) who reminds him of his fated encounter back in his native land. Inquiring about the fate of King Fjölnir, Amleth learns that he has been deposed from the throne and is now living as a sheep farmer in Iceland. The single-minded slaughterer then stows away on a slave ship headed for that gorgeously barren landscape—the Iceland scenes were all filmed on location—and passes himself off as a prisoner of war in order to gain passage to Fjölnir’s remote farm, where, unrecognized by his mother and uncle, he finds work as an enslaved laborer.
On the ship he meets Olga of the Birch Forest (Anya Taylor-Joy), an enslaved Slavic woman who comes to work alongside him at the farm. Eventually, after some moonlit sexytime in the forest, he confides to her both his royal origin and his secret plan to murder his uncle and rescue his mother from the treacherous Fjölnir—even though Gudrún, played by Kidman with an ice-queen hauteur tinged with camp, appears to be content with the family she’s built with her fratricidal brother-in-law.
The Swedish-born Skarsgård, an enthusiast of Viking history since childhood, has been developing this project for over a decade, and in preparation for the role he not only bulked up hugely but trained in everything from horseback riding to sword- and axe-fighting to Japanese Butoh dance. In the visionary director Robert Eggers, an obsessive stickler for historical detail whose two previous films, The Witch and The Lighthouse, both unfurled in similarly grotty half-realist, half-occult period settings, Skarsgård has found the ideal collaborator. Working for the first time with a blockbuster-scaled budget, Eggers can give full range to his feverishly inventive imagination, and the result is often hypnotic, especially in some late sequences where the gravely injured Amleth envisions his entrance into the gates of Valhalla atop the steed of an airborne Valkyrie.
A recent New Yorker profile of Eggers revealed the near-comical exactitude of the research he and his team did on the Norse legends and Old Icelandic sagas on which The Northman is based. Their work shows in the result, with stunningly detailed production design by Craig Lathrop and an unsettling score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough that uses historically accurate instruments like the bone flute and the tagelharpa, a lyre with strings made of horsehair. The costumes feel accurate down to the last cloak pin, helmet nose-guard, and mud-spattered head wrap. The screenplay was co-authored by Eggers and the Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón, a frequent Björk collaborator who also co-wrote the recent folk-horror film Lamb. While the characters’ archaic locutions sometimes evoke laughs that may or may not be intentional, the dialogue also shows an acute ear for the beauty of language and an avoidance of historical anachronism that’s uncommon in the sword-and-sandal tradition this movie hails from. One exception to that rule is some late scenes when a more enlightened Amleth, his vengeance-fixated worldview somewhat softened by his newfound connection to Olga, delivers some lines that sound a tad New Agey for a man who only days ago was skewering his foes like so many gravlax shish kebabs.
At 137 minutes, The Northman can feel ponderously crammed with both mystic visions (however hauntingly rendered) and Mel Gibson–grade sadistic gore. Somewhere around the two-hour point, the endless bone-crunching battle scenes—while impeccably choreographed and breathtakingly shot in fluid long takes—start to become existentially wearying and even morally suspect: Sure, our glowering hero’s propensity for violence springs from his own childhood suffering, but what about the countless families he himself is traumatizing with his ever-increasing hunger for butchery? By the time Amleth and Fjölnir finally have their long-fated face-to-face encounter, a sword fight conducted in the (tastefully silhouetted) nude at the lip of an active volcano, I was ready for destiny to do its damn thing already. And honestly, the male nudity in that climactic battle could have done with being a little less tasteful. In a film otherwise fiercely committed to no-punches-pulled realism (and featuring at least three full-body shots of a naked Taylor-Joy, one prominently featuring menstrual blood), was there really any need to digitally elide the battling men’s genitalia so that they appear to be fighting in unseen tighty-whities? If you’re going to put us through two hours and 20 minutes of buildup to the ultimate faceoff between mythic adversaries over a lake of boiling fire, the least you can hand us as payoff is a glimpse at some well-lit swinging Old Norse D. This eleventh-hour concession to what seems to be ratings-board prudishness was one of the rare moments in The Northman when Eggers’ admirably deranged method could have used a little more madness in’t.