Fantasy and reality coexist in the films of Robert Eggers.
Traveling back in time to that unfixed point where recorded history merges into legend and allegory, the filmmaker’s cinematic folktales combine meticulous research with a sincere belief in the occult. Eggers’ worlds are alive with demonstrably authentic detail, but they’re also awash in imagery that can’t be explained in a way that makes the strange feeling plausible and present.
It was never in doubt, for example, that dark forces lurked in the early American deserts of The witch, Eggers’ feature debut. Within the first ten minutes of this film, a baby was abducted by the titular, extremely real crone, who ground it into a sticky paste to coat her naked body. Lighthouseits doubly feverish follow-up depicts two lighthouse keepers losing their minds while isolated in a violent storm.
Egger’s latest film marks an important step towards mainstream audiences for a director known for his highly opaque arthouse visions. And yet, despite its larger budget, star-studded cast, and relatively easier-to-analyze narrative, The man from the north is powered by the same mix of myth, madness and weirdness that has become Eggers’ signature.
The man from the north seems like a natural progression for Eggers, though it’s also his biggest endeavor yet: a brooding, bloody Viking epic that cost $90 million to make. (Lighthouse clocked in at $11 million, and The witch was done for less than half that.) Given the vastly increased budget, it makes sense that Eggers’ latest work would be his most accessible work – not lit like The witchalmost entirely by the flame of a candle, nor stylized in Lighthouse‘s black and white, Academy-ratio format.
“A lot Easier on the ears.”
It’s also much easier on the ears. While The witch drew its dialogue in modern English straight out of the Geneva Bible, and Lighthouse studied the bawdy, salt-encrusted dialects of the sea wolves of his day, The man from the north primarily reserves its Old Norse and Old Slavic for sequences of rituals and prophecy. Eggers wrote the screenplay with Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón, who also co-wrote last year Lamb. Their collaboration echoes the lyrical and foggy side of the region’s family sagas without cooling the fiery heat of the emotions that fuel its protagonist.
Based on campfire tales and sea shanties from the director’s native New England, The man from the north is based on the same Scandinavian folk story that is said to have inspired Shakespeare Hamlet — though his tale of a revenge odyssey operates on such a primal wavelength, one might as well imagine Eggers discovering it inscribed on a cave wall.
The film opens with a homecoming, as the gloriously named King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) returns to his queen, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), after an overseas expedition. Aurvandil’s young son, Amleth (Oscar Novak), is eager to one day inherit his kingdom, though an initiation ritual performed by courtesan Heimir (Willem Dafoe) promises only that Amleth’s fate is sealed, without going into details. (This sequence marks The man from the norththe first detour into hallucinogenic, heavy metal territory, featuring a blood-drenched crown and a Viking holding open his own chest to reveal a sacred tree with branches in Valhalla.)
“The camera share his bloodlust.”
Soon after, Amleth’s uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) ambushes and assassinates Aurvandil in a bid for the throne, taking Gudrún as his queen and ordering Amleth killed. The boy survives, fleeing his homeland even as he swears to return and recover all that was stolen from him.
Years later, the film picks up with an adult Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard), who lives among a band of Viking berserkers and is soon seen attacking a Slavic village, scaling the walls and advancing steadily through its bloodstained grounds and covered in mud. Eggers teamed up with The witch and Lighthouse director of photography Jarin Blaschke on The man from the northand their immersive, painstaking approach to shooting action – including this first sequence, captured with a single camera in one uninterrupted take – is a striking evolution of the naturalistic techniques they have employed before.
As Amleth lays waste to countless Slavs charging from all sides, the camera shares its bloodlust while remaining perfectly positioned to document the intensity of the surrounding battle. Such passionate and relentlessly striking camerawork is in steady supply throughout The Nordic — one of the few technical fronts on which the film surpasses many big-budget blockbusters the American studio system has produced in recent years.
With the village captured, and following a vision of a whispering seer (Björk) in a feathered headdress, Amleth meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a Slavic woman newly destined for slavery in Iceland. “Your strength can break men’s bones, but I have the cunning to break their spirits,” she tells him, and the two eventually grow closer. Amleth learns that Fjolnir is no longer king in the North Atlantic and commands only a modest outpost on the side of an Icelandic mountain. It is time, he decides, to take his revenge.
As Amleth sets this plot in motion, The man from the north trades the stately allure and brutality of its opening third for a slower-burning center. Although his classic style is still indebted to Scandinavian film legends like Ingmar Bergman and Carl Theodor Dreyer, The man from the north most closely resembles Eggers’ faithful tribute to Werner Herzog Aguirre, the wrath of Godimbuing the landscapes with a sinister presence that vindicates the spiraling mental states of those foolhardy enough to attempt to tame them.
“A triumph of the cinematic vision of brute force.
Eggers is clearly fascinated by the duality of physical and spiritual realms in Norse culture, and he describes both in vivid detail. Glimpses of Valhalla appear in Amleth throughout, and his quest to procure a mythical blade leads him to venture underground, where the lines between life and the afterlife are even more blurred. The director finds a towering natural fit for this lens amid the volcanic landscapes of Iceland, all fire raging beneath the frozen mountains, a landscape that feels as primordial as all the magic and myth that exists within it.
Eggers is lucky to have drawn Skarsgard into the lead role. Physically uncompromising and blessed with a singular, seething determination, the Swedish actor exudes Amleth’s rage but retains an edge as skilled enough as a performer to nuance his expressions with more plaintive angst and self-doubt. Like co-star Taylor-Joy, whose otherworldly appeal magnifies that of the film, Skarsgard is one of those fearless actors who are most comfortable navigating dark material. He’s a rare man who can convey the odd, sympathetic naïveté of a character first seen stabbing an ax into a horse, biting a man’s ear, and howling at the moon like a wild animal, but such is the power of Skarsgard.
Mainly, however, The man from the north records as a triumph of cinematic vision of brute force. Atmospheric and always involving, it’s beautifully shot and heavily acted, fostering a funereal progression for his revenge odyssey (a change from the growing hysteria of Eggers’ earlier films) that only accentuates the film’s mythic qualities. . Moviegoers who don’t know The witch and Lighthouse might be surprised by the ferocity of The man from the northThe bloodshed of , and the deliberately odd marriage of all its blood, fire and pain with a shimmering spirit realm depicted without qualification. But for those already in love with Eggers’ tightly controlled and hypnotic folk tales, that won’t break the spell.
The man from the north hits theaters Friday, April 22.