What is the true essence of a weird little guy?
My friend told me it’s “a combination of magnetism and revulsion.” But I propose an alternative: It’s Willem Dafoe as Heimir the Fool, The Northman’s secret weapon. Despite having the epitome of little-guy weirdness at his disposal, however, director Robert Eggers quickly squanders his film’s crown jewel—to the detriment of both the audience and The Northman itself.
The Northman is based on the old Scandinavian legend that inspired Hamlet, albeit with a significant increase in guys wearing wolf pelts. Differences aside—there are plenty of them—Eggers and cowriter Sjón add an explicit Yorick reference in the form of Heimir. So explicit, in fact, that there’s even a scene later in the film when Prince Amleth (get it?) beholds Heimir’s skull and sighs, “Poor Heimir.” Although Hamlet never shows Yorick alive, The Northman ensures that we absolutely get to see Heimir in the prime of his lifetime—making dick jokes and officiating psychedelic “werewolf bar mitzvahs.” It’s fantastic stuff, powered by Dafoe unleashing a level of weird-little-guy energy previously unknown to man. The notes I took while watching the movie were a scrawl of “what. is. happening” as a loinclothed, prancing Dafoe tapped into the primal energy of nature’s savage side for what felt like an hour straight. It was glorious.
If only Heimir’s antics had actually been that lengthy. Instead, Eggers commits a strange sin. He clearly knows that Dafoe is an ace in the hole, yet he doesn’t utilize the actor to his full potential. He only appears in the banquet scene in Viking-Jester regalia and then in the hallucinogenic initiation scene before making an exit off the mortal coil… offscreen. At least give him a solid death to remember him by!
It’s not as if Eggers doesn’t realize what he’s working with here. His previous work, 2019’s The Lighthouse, starred Dafoe as yet another weird little guy, Thomas Wake, who spent the movie driving Robert Pattinson’s Winslow absolutely batty. In The Lighthouse, Dafoe gets to spout dialogue like, “HARK, TRITON! Bellow, bid our father the Sea King rise from the depths full foul in his fury!” Watching that movie, I felt like I was falling off the mental deep end right along with the two prisoners. But mine was a euphoric descent, a willing submission to the chaos unfolding in front of me. True, Eggers kills Dafoe off there too—but not before he manages to mold Winslow in his strange likeness. Like matter and mass, weird little guys are always conserved: They can’t be destroyed or created, only changed.
Eggers breaks this natural law in The Northman. After Heimir vacates the story, there is no one to replace him, and thus the film’s balance never fully recovers. What was once a film brimming with psychedelia and unbridled, unhinged energy becomes a straightforward revenge tale—just with a lot more blood and guts (and sepsis risk). Björk briefly takes up his mantle, as the seeress that jolts Amleth out of his raiding-random-villages-for-sport malaise. Alas, poor Björick, she’s gone even faster than Heimir. When Heimir’s skull makes an appearance in the latter half of the story, the film regains its manic, hypnotizing verve. That’s the power of Dafoe right there—you just need to invoke him to get your groove back. But it lasts just one scene, returning The Northman to something comparatively more measured right after.
The strangeness doesn’t stop after Heimir is gone, but it’s a lot less fun, resulting in an uncomfortable cadence of bit parts briefly rescuing the film before it slips back into relative normalcy. A hallucination of a screaming Valkyrie just doesn’t have the same je ne se quoi as Heimir’s “Your fate is set and you cannot ’scape it” surrounded by steam and warm light, delivered with Dafoe’s penetrating gaze. Anya Taylor-Joy helps Amleth screw with his treasonous uncle Fjölnir using psychedelic mushrooms, but by that point, you just want Fjölnir to die so you can go home and take a nap. Nicole Kidman briefly rescues the film when she reveals herself to not exactly be the helpless figure Amleth seems to think she is—and she’s not above some light incest either. But that’s more disturbing than euphorically Weird. And the title Northman is absolutely unhinged—in that he rips peoples throats out while howling like a wolf. “Weird,” yes, but not the kind I’d go back to see more of.
I didn’t have a terrible time during The Northman, but I came for Heimir, I saw Heimir, and I conquered my fate to see Heimir. I probably could have gone home after the first half hour, once Eggers disposed of him. I probably would have saved my ears from some serious damage, and I would have left on the high note of Dafoe in his element: being the weird little guy that cinema deserves.