Robert Egger likes to explore the uncertainty of horrifying situations, whether through religion and doubt in 2015 The witchor questioning your own sanity in 2019 Lighthouse. Eggers told both of these stories on a relatively small scale, mostly limited to a lonely house on the edge of the woods, or a claustrophobic lighthouse so small that even the main character bumps his head on the film’s aspect ratio. These limitations helped make Eggers such an effective filmmaker and an orchestrator of these small-scale nightmares. Yet as witches and mermaids – and the fear that the world has lost its meaning – have plagued the characters in Eggers’ films, it is this uncertainty that creeps in and gets under the skin of his character that makes Eggers’ first two films stories that are hard to shake off long after they’re done.
Eggers’ third film, The man from the north, however, gives the director a much wider canvas to explore, a broader, more expansive vision than we’ve ever seen Eggers try to tackle before, but with that uncertainty still intact and still just as effective. Co-authored by Eggers and sjon, The man from the north follows the Viking warrior prince Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) on his journey of revenge. As a child, Amleth saw his father, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke), murdered by his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang). After witnessing his father’s murder, Amleth swore to avenge his father and save his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) – who was kidnapped by Fjölnir’s men – and kill Fjölnir.
The man from the north first resembles Eggers’ work in its weirdness, whether through characters like Willem Dafoe‘s Heimir the Fool, or the unsettling nature of the times, where royalty can become enslaved at any moment and violence appears around every corner. But like The man from the north progresses, Eggers’ penchant for uncertainty once again seeps into his story, as Amleth’s quest for revenge becomes fraught with skepticism. Yet within this uncertainty comes Eggers’ most focused theme to date, as Eggers and Sjón explore how evil begets evil and how even the most black-and-white scenarios are rife with gray. The man from the north ultimately becomes a story of embracing love, compassion and forgiveness, or falling into the lowest desires for retribution.
Like all of Eggers’ work, The man from the north has an inherent haunting quality. When we first see Amleth as an adult, he is more animal than human. As Amleth and his team murder and loot their way through a small village, Skarsgård comes across almost like a beast, with hunched shoulders and a determination to kill anything that gets in his way. Even though at this early stage Amleth tried to ignore his royal lineage, one can see the deep rage that has been in this man for decades. Eggers films this invasion almost like a combination of a horror movie and Elem Klimovthe terrifying anti-war film, come and see. Eggers shows our protagonist as an adult, then immediately reveals that his actions since we last saw him have been as bad, if not worse, than the actions of his murderous uncle.
Based on the Norse legend of Amleth, which was william shakespearethe inspiration for Hamlet, The man from the north isn’t exactly about reinventing Viking history, but rather about taking familiar elements and making them shocking and new through Eggers’ camera. As Amleth pursues his objective, Eggers, accompanied by the cinematographer Jarin Blaschke— who shot Eggers’ previous feature films — amp up the terrors. Anger is beginning to creep in Amleth, and we can see it through the wake it leaves behind. Again, Eggers and Sjón don’t necessarily do much groundbreaking storytelling, but the determination to show the terror and panic of this time and in such a situation makes The man from the north one of the most stunning Viking tales in recent memory.
Another key element that makes Eggers’ films so exceptional is capturing fantastic performances among his terrors, and that certainly remains true in The man from the north. Skarsgård is remarkable as Amleth, showing audiences exactly what this character is thinking through nothing more than her sheer physicality. It’s almost as if Skarsgård plays Amleth as a werewolf, transforming when the lust for blood becomes too much to bear. Balancing Amleth’s Fury is Olga (Anya Taylor Joy), a witch who aids Amleth in his goal. As Olga says early on, Amleth can break men’s bodies, but she can break men’s minds, and like Amleth, we can see when Olga’s rage outweighs the way she presents herself. Skarsgård and Taylor-Joy are great together, a couple they both needed lest they completely succumb to the anger raging inside them.
Beyond this couple, The man from the north is packed with phenomenal performances, most of which are seen through Amleth’s unreliable vantage point. Kidman and Bang are particularly brilliant, in roles that almost require a second viewing to be fully appreciated. Bang as Fjölnir gives a calm and reserved performance that shows a man trying to do his best with what he has left, while Kidman also plays Queen Gudrún with restraint, but Kidman’s opportunity to go all-in with resentment within this character is one of The man from the norththe best scenes.
However, if there is one thing The man from the north is absent from the rest of Eggers’ work, it is this lack of madness that has made parts of The witch and Lighthouse almost feels like catharsis. At the end of The witchEggers provided this moment to embrace the hysteria of this situation, while Lighthouse almost made an entire movie around that feeling. But that part of Eggers’ sensibility is mostly absent here, popping up occasionally during The man from the norththe most fantastic moments. It’s not an overwhelming absence, but I feel The man from the north could have incorporated that madness a bit more into this tale as well.
Most importantly, it’s exciting to see Eggers working on this scale and thriving. Eggers’ striking style and visuals work beautifully in such a large and grand story, and even on a grander scale, Eggers can still craft a movie that feels oppressive in just the right way. While this is Eggers’ least horror-focused story, it still uses many of the same techniques to immerse audiences in the foreboding this time period must have instilled in people of that era. There are few filmmakers capable of moving from smaller, island stories to large-scale epics, but with The man from the northEggers has proven that his style and substance can stay intact no matter how big the story.
The man from the north hits theaters April 22.
New ‘The Northman’ Clips See Alexander Skarsgård’s Amleth Going Into Battle
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