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Robert Eggers’ latest film, “The Northman,” solidifies his standing as one of the most interesting young directors and writers around. His films would be unique in any era, but they truly stand out as something special in the current film landscape, even if they are disturbing.
Eggers’ films have a distinct aesthetic that makes for powerful filmgoing experiences. They’re also definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, which gives his voice even more of an edge in this age of mass media franchise saturation.
The Dark Side of Humanity
It’s useful to look at “The Northman” in context, in line with the director’s work. Eggers’ debut film, “The Witch” (2015), is at the very least a top-five contender for greatest director premier ever. It’s one of the best horror films ever made, but more importantly a fearless and disturbing look into the dark heart of humanity. The film’s pace is torturous, each moment bleeding dread.
But what’s really unique about “The Witch” is that the commitment to historical detail extends to the beliefs of the time it’s set. It’s subtitled “A New England Folktale,” and the focus of the entire story is on a heretical pilgrim family trying to make their way in the new world alone. They encounter a witch in the wilderness who embodies all the ideas of the time about witchcraft.
I think from Eggers’ perspective, this story is probably a deconstruction of Christianity as a toxic ideology and possibly a defense of feminism. After all, witches were alleged to require parts of dead children to make their flying ointments, and engaged in nonreproductive sex with Satan in the woods. The importance of infanticide to contemporary feminism and the worship of nonreproductive sex is central to everything deemed critical “theory,” a.k.a. leftism.
Whatever Eggers’s intention may have been, however, the film he made displays the depravity of the human heart in all its naked glory. It’s a boldly directed, disturbing masterpiece, which is also useful as a didactic tool about the age in which it’s set.
Eggers followed that film with “The Lighthouse,” done entirely in black and white. A bizarre and twisted tale of insanity and isolation set in a New England lighthouse at the end of the 19th century, this film displayed even more of Eggers’ mastery as a filmmaker even if it was a less satisfying piece of writing.
The film is visually stunning, and the performances are spectacular, but there’s so little for the audience to relate to that it often feels overwhelming. But this film also takes the historical exactitude to the realm of belief. This is what brings in all the insanity of the story: the beliefs of the characters inform the reality of the narrative.
Valkyries and Valhalla
“The Northman” looked like it would be a massive departure from Eggers’s previous works. The cast was much larger, the scale clearly epic. It’s categorized as an action drama instead of horror, but this film is essentially a continuation of his previous creative vision.
While there is action and drama in the film, it still feels primarily like a horror movie. The score, in particular, accompanied by brutal onscreen violence, often makes the viewer feel as though he’s being assaulted. Several scenes involve hallucinogenic states that are deeply troubling.
If it wasn’t so enslaved to reproducing a genuine historical mood, this film would be the epitome of dark fantasy. There are Valkyries, sorceresses, “zombies,” and Odin even shows up at one point. But it’s all based around what the people of the time actually believed and did, and while there are surely academics who would contest various aspects (because there always are) it’s obvious that the film is supposed to be representing an ancient worldview accurately.
The film mostly succeeds at being a powerful tale of Viking revenge. It’s basically a retelling of “Hamlet,” but they went directly to Shakespeare’s source material: the legend of Amleth. All the fundamental unadorned elements are there, to the point where someone unfamiliar with Shakespeare might think it was a terrifying remake of “The Lion King.”
The production and cinematography are stunning. The performances are also remarkable, especially for a film with zero humor. Eggers’s films are almost unbearably grim. The only thing that offsets this is that the viewer often feels as though the people making the film were having a riotously good time. Not in the way of practical jokes on set, but because everyone understands he is doing great work. And this film is very great work.
Storytelling Minus Morals
The film is also a deeply disturbing look at what paganism meant, and ultimately why Christianity converted all of Scandinavian and Russia out of it. I think Eggers is probably attempting to romanticize pre-Christian Europe. Especially if you’ve seen “The Witch” — it seems clear that the world of “The Northman” is the exact same world the witch comes from. It’s a world of nudity in the woods, open sex, and violence.
Maybe Eggers is trying to criticize through faithful depiction, but his love of “Conan the Barbarian” tells me that he likes this world, at least a little. There are numerous visual callbacks to that film in particular.
But it’s also possible that Eggers is trying to do the most postmodern of things: storytelling without morality. From this perspective, there are no heroes, only protagonists. It’s not clear that Amleth’s mother and uncle aren’t justified in killing his father, or that it even matters if they are. His father isn’t a good man, no one in the film is particularly good.
Amleth’s revenge is a destiny, something he must do, not necessarily something he should do. The fact that the gods are apparently on his side isn’t particularly indicative of his virtue. This is a story of pain and power and magic. Taken in that light, the violent and operatic nature of “The Northman” feels almost sublime. But as a Christian, it ultimately rings hollow, or even horrifying.
A world with no truth or goodness is not beautiful. At one point a character remarks on the Christians of the day as those who worship a corpse on a tree. And that is iconographically accurate. But the context makes all the difference.
The reasons behind why that corpse was on that tree, how that corpse came back to life, and how that tree eventually replaced Yggdrasil and baptized Norse mythology changing Northern Europe for the better is one of the most beautiful stories ever told.
Maybe the best scene in the film is the climactic swordfight between Amleth and his uncle. They are fighting inside a volcano called the gates of hell. The bombast from the music, the amazing cinematography, and incredible performances synthesize into a perfect moment of fever dream violence. It’s amazingly executed.
But while reflecting on it later I was struck by how hollow the struggle was, and how Jesus’ followers are promised that the gates of hell won’t defeat us. And I felt deeply grateful that the world of “The Northman” was eventually transformed by the love of Christ.
A.C. Gleason is a proud alumnus of Biola University and Talbot Seminary. He teaches Philosophy full time. His writing has appeared in numerous outlets including Hollywood in Toto, The Daily Wire, and The Imaginative Conservative. He co-hosts and co-produces The AK47 Podcast with fellow Talbot Alum Kyle Hendricks.