The Northman, by Crom!

northmThe Northman, 2022, 137 mins, 4K UHD

Robert Egger’s The Northman is John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian by way of The Lighthouse; it is barbaric revenge with lots of meta-physical weirdness chucked in. Something like Robert E Howard via David Lynch.

As an intellectual exercise, I don’t mind all the meta-physical stuff, its Egger’s way of trying to get us ‘into’ the heads of the Vikings back then, of how they thought. It was something Eggers did well in his debut film The Witch, getting viewers into the mindset of Puritan settlers in 17th Century New England. Its something that often frustrated me, whether a film be a Roman epic, Medieval romp or indeed a futuristic space-faring saga – its wrong to pretend people back then (or indeed in the distant future) will be the same as us, with the same beliefs and points of view. Its one of the things that I think Kubrick nailed so well in 2001: A Space Odyssey, how dehumanised people are in Kubrick’s year 2001, how they interact, how soul-less old traditions like wishing someone a happy birthday seems, which I always thought was, deliberately or not, the films thesis of how technology dehumanises people (and the irony of how HAL 9000 seems the most human character in the film). Likewise in period films, we cannot really appreciate how people thought and rationalised back when superstition dominated short and uneducated lives, people absolutely convinced there were Gods in the sky or Devils lurking in the shadows. We can try putting ourselves in their places but will always fail- we know too much; even if its just knowing what those lights in the sky are. Whether we really need all the mystical nonsense and its weird imagery to do that is up to debate, or indeed if we need so much of it, but its what Eggers deployed to serve his ends.

All this of course is an intellectual point of view and doesn’t necessarily make for very good, enjoyable movies- so often film-makers ignore such exercises and make a film like Gladiator with Roman-era characters that are modern enough that we can fully identify with them, or films like Red Planet with astronauts that act like ordinary joes rather than professional level-headed engineers/astronauts. Films after all are entertainment first and foremost.

So I have to wonder is The Northman any better than Conan the Barbarian, as a film? It follows a very similar plot, in which a disenfranchised boy, separated from his people and home seeks revenge for the death of his father and ultimately arguably finds that revenge hollow, questioning the purpose that has driven him all his life. It features near-identical scenes of our hero finding a special sword in a tomb, taking it from the dead hands of an ancient warrior. It even looks similar, Milius and his art team (notably the late Ron Cobb and William Stout) influenced by Viking armour and Northern culture/lore from the Dark Ages to lend Robert E Howard’s Hyborian Age some verisimilitude onscreen.

I was actually surprised how often The Northman kept reminding me of Milius’ film- I know many have pointed to obvious parallels with Hamlet which was itself is based on Norse legend (Hamlet = Amleth), but to me it was Conan that kept tapping me on the shoulder. Indeed, while watching The Northman I often considered how cool it would be if Robert E Howard’s character could be given a serious treatment  similar to that of Egger’s film.  I particularly liked its treatment of sorcery/magic- the moment in which Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) invokes her Gods to summon wind to speed her boat on its way was pure, tangible Robert E Howard- no flashy visual pyrotechnics or animation, just an intonation followed by howling wind.

What The Northman lacked was a rousing score such as the Basil Poledouris classic that Conan was blessed by, and indeed interesting characters: Eggers film preferred to leave his film’s Vikings etc pretty much unknowable with largely unfathomable passions: intellectually fine I guess but perhaps opposed to traditional film narrative. Funnily enough, I can recall Conan being criticised for the same but its obviously cut from a different cloth to Egger’s film; one can believe Conan falling for Sandahl Bergman’s Valeria, feel their passion, and ironically, considering Arnie’s lack of acting prowess, he actually feels more human than Alexander Skarsgård does, but of course that’s maybe the point. Conan feels rather contemporary (Howards gritty Hyborian hero tinged with a hard-boiled, rather noir sensibility in his stories) while Amleth feels like some stranger wholly of his Dark Ages.

The Northman ultimately takes itself a little too seriously and takes far too long telling a very familiar, and surprisingly simple, story. It looks gorgeous and authentic, grounded in some kind of grey reality but maybe needed something bolder, more epic- it lacks a villain, really; Amleth’s uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) is almost a victim of fate himself (or maybe that’s the point), apparently manipulated by Amleth’s mother Queen Gudrun (a rather bizarre-looking Nicole Kidman) to betray his King and brother. Its likely more realistic (and realism seems to be Egger’s justification for everything with regard this film) but it leaves the film lacking some energy and, yes, the more traditional plot for viewers to hang onto: the film needs a complete and utter bastard for us to hold in contempt, rooting for our hero. We always knew James Earl Jones’ Thulsa Doom was an evil sorcerer who deserved Conan’s steel cleaved through his neck; instead I rather hoped Fjolnir would come to his senses, dump Gudrun and go find himself a better life. That’s clearly not the film Eggers was making though and would likely just confound viewers more than they are already. Me? I much prefer Conan the Barbarian.

At the Lighthouse of Madness

lighthouseActually, just typing that title makes me think that a film of H P Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness might benefit by taking a similar approach to this film -black and white, obtuse to the point of impenetrable plot (if there even is one)- but I have to confess it just annoyed the hell out of me in this film. On the one hand, sure, I could admire the gritty, atmospheric b&w cinematography, the unnerving sound design, but as a piece of storytelling it just felt broken. 

Which was very disappointing, because I really enjoyed being intrigued and horrified  by Robert Eggers’ earlier film, The Witch, from 2015. The Lighthouse shared that film’s sense of dread and welcome tendency to undermine traditional horror tropes, but The Lighthouse just goes too far into delirium, frankly, as if Eggers just lost control and succumbed to his own temporary madness making it.

Or maybe I’m not giving the film sufficient credit for successfully delving into madness as the subject matter of a film. Sadly the irony is that it doesn’t really function as a film at all. Its perhaps more of a tone poem than a story, the plot being two lighthouse keepers on a New England island in the 1890s don’t really get along and promptly lose their shit. I mean that’s about it, really. Eggers throws in some vague references to scary mermaids and Lovecraftian Cthuloid horror but that’s one of the characters minds succumbing to the Lighthouse of Madness. I think I would have preferred it to be literal; you know, there really is something Lovecraftian going on at this strange, remote island on the edge of 19th century civilization. Its not that the madness of it all is actually anything wrong, its just that it robs the film of what might have been a genuinely chilling story. 

Maybe I was just in the mood for an old-fashioned horror tale rather than a cerebral art-house tale. Yes the two leads are really very good – I don’t think I’ve seen William Dafoe as good as this in many years, and Pattinson might actually turn out to be an intriguing Batman after all-  but I think their efforts are wasted in an ironically empty-headed and pointless film. Its frustrating because otherwise, it is such a brilliantly made period piece- the acting, art direction, atmosphere, dialogue all lending it a wonderfully convincing  sense of time and place, that if it really had genuine horrors under the surface (sic), it might have been a genuine horror classic and up there with The Wicker Man or The Blood on Satan’s Claw, frankly. 

Or maybe I just missed the point. I have this same issue with some of David Lynch’s films and others of that ilk, where being obtuse almost for the sake of it just strikes me as lazy and frustrating, undermining what should be ‘proper’ storytelling. I don’t mind ambiguity, but I do think it needs a proper framework.