The hype attending Robert Eggers’ “The Northman” has mostly pivoted on two details: that it is “Hamlet” in Viking drag, taken from source material that inspired the Bard himself, and that it is rich in the fetishistic historical detail that characterized Eggers’ previous “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse.” These claims are valid as far as they go, I suppose, though they distract from the heart of the matter: that the film is a disappointment, a meathead action picture with delusions of grandeur.
I’m not familiar with the ancient scrolls that reportedly inspired “The Northman,” but, judging from the movie, Shakespeare came up with all the good stuff. Hamlet is one of the most famously tortured protagonists in the western canon, while Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) is a hulking, brute stud consumed only with vengeance. There’s no “to be or not to be” moment for Amleth, as he is an astonishing, unkillable, unbeatable specimen of hunkus cinematicus marked by no form of human doubt. He’s a vintage Arnold Schwarzenegger character without the charisma or pleasing sense of scale and self-awareness an old-school Arnie picture offers. Because “The Northman” can’t just be an action spectacle. It is Art. It comes from ancient source material, after all.
During the film’s many longueurs I thought of Mel Gibson, who played Hamlet in Franco Zeffirelli’s okay 1990 film, and whose “Braveheart” has become a model for the sort of medieval martyr revenge saga that Eggers is, whether he knows it or not, attempting here. It is not fashionable to discuss Gibson these days, for reasons of his own doing, but he has a ferocity as an actor and director that “The Northman” could sorely use. Gibson also scans as human, even in his badass roles, perhaps because the torments that have dogged him in real life have a way of reading onscreen, bringing him down to earth. Skarsgård has a promising suggestion of sensitivity in his eyes, but filmmakers haven’t fully tapped into it yet. They can’t yet see beyond his body.
“The Northman” has a promising opening. Amleth (played as a child by Oscar Novak) worships his king father, War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), who has returned from a grand campaign of presumably killing, enslaving, and raping people. It is 895 A.D. and Eggers isn’t shy about this primordial Viking society’s animalistic fervor. It is his badge of honor and hipness in fact, and Eggers routinely stops the film dead in its tracks for long sequences of pagan-esque debauchery. These scenes are distinctively hallucinatory, such as when War-Raven takes Amleth into a cave and playacts as a wolf for a shaman jester played by “Lighthouse” vet Willem Dafoe. After, say, the third or fourth prophecy or passage of berserker male bonding, however, I started to wish that Eggers would get on with it.
Eggers’ masturbatory attention to details that matter to virtually no one else worked in “The Witch,” which felt so authentic to its time that it seemed dangerous. But I’m starting to wonder if Eggers is a fraud who hides behind his research. “The Lighthouse” had a wonderful silent-movie-from-hell look and two very game actors, but it’s basically one loony-tunes scene over and over again, as the filmmaker admitted himself recently on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast. Still, it got by on vibe, but “The Northman” requires a classical sense of storytelling sweep that the filmmaker sorely lacks. Probably aware of this liability, Eggers retreats into fetishism, lingering over the Viking rituals, their props, their huts, their visions, and so on, while rendering the film in a monochrome that sucks dry the bare minimum of liveliness that’s been wrested onto the screen. (And, bros, don’t get excited about the action sequences. They’re as freeze-dried as the rest of the movie.)
“Hamlet” had internal and external intrigue. It’s about a man pondering suicide who gradually destroys his treacherous uncle’s kingdom from the inside-out, at the cost of his own soul. Amleth doesn’t play games with his own nemesis, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who marries his mother, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), after murdering War-Raven. Rather, Amleth pretends to be a slave and stands around, waiting to strike while making googly eyes at a real slave, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). There’s nothing truly going on in this dramatically inert movie, as it sinks into its own repetitive kill-and-wait-to-kill-again rhythms. And the sight of the profoundly attractive Skarsgård and Taylor-Joy canoodling together, among peoples and realms of otherwise mossy brutality, courts Cecil B. DeMille levels of kitsch that are intensified by the ludicrous faux-poetic, faux-period dialogue.
Hawke, who also played Hamlet in Michael Almereyda’s superb 2000 modernization, and Bang offer the few signs of life that are detectable in “The Northman.” Their characters are each afforded two notes rather than the one that defines most of the others. Hawke’s decent-guy vibe offers a startling counterpoint to a bloodthirsty king, while Bang is allowed to show that while his conqueror is, yes, treacherous, he’s also a devoted family man keen on showing his sons how to manage his sparse farm society. Those portraitures may sound rudimentary, but you take what you can get from “The Northman,” whose dueling art and pulp sensibilities serve to cancel the entire film out before your eyes.