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The Northman cometh

The new film gives too vivid a depiction of the “beast” that lies within all mankind


The Northman cometh
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We live in a time in which people argue against systemic evils, but seldom do we hear that the real problem is the innately sinful human heart. Instead we seek solutions through legislation or intimidation, and we malign those who stand in the way of “progress.”

The Northman, currently in theaters, calls into question our utopian dreams, reminding us of the darkness that lies in each of us. The film vividly depicts (too vividly at times) the savage nature of humanity and our instinctual desire to satisfy justice through vengeance.

The movie is the third from avant-garde writer/director Robert Eggers. His first two projects were the critically successful artistic horror films The Witch and The Lighthouse. With The Northman, Eggers leaves his horror roots to make his first epic. And it is epic, with first-rate cinematography, story development, and performances. But as is the case with much contemporary art, its excellence only serves to deepen the movie’s darkness.

The film’s story is based on the Scandinavian legend of Amleth (the same legend that inspired Shakespeare’s Hamlet). In the first act, young Amleth witnesses his uncle (Claes Bang) kill Amleth’s father the king (Ethan Hawke) and kidnap Amleth’s mother (Nicole Kidman). The young prince narrowly escapes and vows, in torturous and angered repetition, that he will avenge his father, save his mother, and kill his uncle.

The rest of the film follows the adult Amleth (played with captivating ferocity by Alexander Skarsgård) as he fulfills his quest for vengeance while struggling with whether, as was the Norse belief, his own destiny is determined by fate.

In this journey, audiences will see the savagery and brutality that exist within humanity, and Eggers strove for historical accuracy throughout production. But some of the historical elements only heighten the disturbing aspects. The R-rated film revels in its depiction of the feral and carnal nature of man. The violence is extremely graphic, and the movie contains a prolonged sex scene. There’s also a scene of frontal nudity, though it’s not sexual in nature.

The film concludes with a message that is consistent with both Norse and contemporary societal beliefs—that peace apparently can only be found when our anger is sated through vengeance.

I would have liked to see the theme of peace coming in the laying down of one’s sword. But that would not have been consistent with the Viking way, and Eggers stays true to their ideals.

The Northman epitomizes the line from Hamlet, “to thine own self be true,” and our world continues to embrace this idea. It’s a pity neither the Vikings nor our own society seem to have much use for grace.

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