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  • Writer's pictureBrad Gullickson

'The Northman' is the Conan the Barbarian Remake We Wanted

We review the new rage-filled masterpiece from director Robert Eggers and bask in its bloody Norse god glory.

The drums kick out the jams early. Once the percussion starts in The Northman, it doesn't stop. The film, its characters, and you are on a mission: to see vengeance satiated. Filmmaker Robert Eggers delivers and does not deliver on the blood lust, but his meal absolutely satisfies.

You'll probably read the following sentence in a lot of other reviews. The Northman is Eggers' most accessible film yet. The plot revolves around a young boy who witnesses his kingly father's beheading committed by his uncle's hands. He barely manages escape, chewing the nose off his attacker. Hidden in plain sight, Prince Amleth witnesses his mother carried off as a spoil. He flees, swearing an oath of revenge and rescue. Years leap forward, and the child becomes a man, Alexander Skarsgård specifically. He's ready.

As an outline, The Northman operates like an updated Conan the Barbarian, trading Robert E. Howard's amalgam mythology for a more historically resonate Norse mythology. By Crom/Odin, it rapturously achieves the barbarity. The violence is thick, matching Amleth's exaggerated anger. The set-pieces expertly sprung without ever feeling overly choreographed. These are warriors on the battlefield, making their strikes whenever they present themselves. It's chaos; victory results from luck and confidence as much as planning.

Unlike Conan the Barbarian, humanity's relationship with the gods is more reciprocal. Or, at least, more pronounced. Crom took a hands-off approach with the Cimmerian; Conan's duty was to clear his own path. Amleth has better access to the spirits and their keepers. As a result, The Northman wanders more frequently into a mystical realm, although arguments could be made regarding the narrator's reliability.

Whatever the case, Eggers' more whimsical and familiar flourishes occur in the sequences where gods commune with their flock. Both Willem Dafoe and Björk feature significantly but briefly as heavenly conduits. The casting is spot-on, with each actor leaving you wanting way more. At 136 minutes, The Northman contains its plot in totality, but the world is so compelling you'll wish for a shared universe.

If you're looking to stay ahead of the story, you can probably guess The Northman's twists and turns. Eggers and Sjón's script trades in the familiar, but the narrative is not the feast you should crave. The tastiest bits are the vibes and the emotions. Skarsgård is more than a snack; he's a god damn cornucopia. Fury and hurt ripple and roll across his frame. We hang on his expressions and movement, anticipating and fearing how The Northman's reveals will decimate his mind and body.

As Amleth inches closer and closer to freeing his mother (Nicole Kidman) and slaying his uncle (Claes Bang), he unites with a slave seeking similar fulfillment. Anya Taylor-Joy's Olga of the Birch Forest claims sorcery as her aid, the ability to bend men's minds as Amleth bends or breaks their flesh. They're a compelling couple, a union easy to root for as life around them puts them in a squeeze.

Heightening everything is the score by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough. Again, those beastly drums! Pray your theater cranks their system to eleven as the score thunders to Thor's demands. Carolan and Gainsborough plant the audience to their seats, commanding attention as Eggers strips the banality from a cinematically well-trodden revenge odyssey.

Where previous Robert Eggers movies like The Witch and The Lighthouse were tricky to recommend to certain friends and family members, The Northman is easy to match with those in your contact list. Find your confidants who don't mind a little blood and mayhem, the friends who seek action and are willing to get just a little bit weird.

Quickie Review: The Northman is the hot-blooded rage-filled Conan the Barbarian-like vengeance quest the trailer promised. The delights come from the equally expected but still somehow surprising Robert Eggers flourishes. It's one of the year's best films. 9/10


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