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“The Northman” Is Tiring At Times, Yet It Is Still Impressive And Intense


King Aurvandil War-Raven, played by Ethan Hawke, and his young son, Amleth, played by Oscar Novak as a child and Alexander Skarsgard as an adult, arrive at a cabin in the middle of the forest about ten minutes into “The Northman,” the latest film from acclaimed horror director Robert Eggers, ready to act out a royal ritual that has preceded them for generations. When the boys approach the dilapidated structure, they are greeted by Heimir the Fool, played by Willem Dafoe, who invites them to drink a psychedelic liquid concoction with the jester, as has been the custom for years.

The scenario that follows is bizarre and hallucinatory, with Hawke giving his best dog impression while getting down on all fours and barking at Dafoe’s character. This scene reminds me of Eggers’ last directorial effort, “The Lighthouse,” and it will not be the only time I think of his previous work while watching this new picture.

“The Northman” is reminiscent of “The Witch,” Eggers’ spectacular period horror picture that also served as his directorial debut, in terms of savage violence, formal rigidity, and ceaselessly engrossing depiction of its environment.

While Eggers’ latest film doesn’t quite approach the heights of his previous two — where “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” seemed marvelously swift, this is occasionally bloated and sluggish — it does demonstrate that the director is still a singular talent to watch.

The story arc of “The Northman” begins to manifest itself shortly after the aforementioned scene. Amleth, set to inherit the kingdom from his illustrious father, suffers a personal tragedy when the young boy’s power-hungry uncle, Fjölnir the Brotherless, played by Claes Bang, attacks and decapitates his father.

When forced to abandon his besieged kingdom, Amleth repeats three phrases that serve as a good summary of the rest of the story – “I will revenge you, father. Mother, I will save you. Fjölnir, I’ll murder you.”

The vengeance narrative goes into high gear when the film flashes forward several years and finds Amleth as an adult, consumed with savage rage and traveling with a band of brutal Vikings.

The plot of the picture is mostly focused on heightened intensity rather than plot machinations, so bloody revenge is about all there is to it.

There’s nothing wrong with simplicity – “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” weren’t exactly masterpieces of narrative complexity — but at 137 minutes, “The Northman” starts to feel a little long. It’s possible to conceive a version of this picture that runs between 90 and 110 minutes and maintains the film’s horrific intensity from beginning to end without any significant narrative lulls. This isn’t it, unfortunately.

Fortunately, Eggers’ knack for mood, bizarre imagery, and visceral impact remain, and they’re more than enough to get the audience through the film’s more tedious passages.

While some of the long tracking shots are a little too pompous, several of the film’s action scenes, such as an early siege on a settlement or final combat against a raging volcano, are brutally effective.

He also does an outstanding job of conjuring up a feverishly intense and scary atmosphere, backed by booming sound design and startling sights like a reanimated and rotting body of a fallen spirit. However, this unyieldingly heightened approach has its limitations: the lack of aesthetic change throughout the film, along with the thinness of the narrative, can get a bit exhausting over time.

Despite its flaws, “The Northman” is a competently constructed film with enough distinctive vistas and sounds to merit a recommendation. While it does not reach the dizzying heights of its director’s previous two films, it demonstrates that Eggers is still a unique and interesting genius.

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