The past decade seems to have birthed a new holy trinity in American prestige horror cinema. In one corner we have the social front with Jordan Peele, political, satirical and engaged with today’s world, in another we have Ari Aster, psychological, digging into our relationships and our emotional needs, and in the third corner, we have Robert Eggers, looking back, extending into the sublime.
Now I’m a little skeptical of the ‘savior from horror’ story around these three being praised to the highest heavens and dressed in brand new emperor attire by the A24 brothers who use the term “high horror”. Their reputation rests on a very thin and somewhat haphazard collective catalogue, and their films often leave me a little dissatisfied. However, I admit, the ambition never fails and their films are always interesting, if only in the debates that one can have around whether they are really good or not, and Robert Eggers is so far probably my favorite of the trio, with The man from the north now making him three for three.
That said, I think The man from the north is the weakest of Eggers’ films, and it marks the point at which the slight background issues I had with his work made their way to the fore. If anyone had asked me why I wasn’t quite on the hype train during The Vitch (still probably the best movie these three have made) or Lighthouse, I would have struggled to answer, as they always left enough room for the benefit of the doubt. Although on paper these are fairly simple stories, they are very good at suggesting that there is more going on than there is. With The man from the north however, I call Eggers’ bluff. I don’t think there’s much going on under the surface here and it’s starting to make me wonder there ever was.
We haven’t had a lot of Viking movies, and the ones we’ve had haven’t been very good. Rise of Valhalla is probably the closest compatriot to this movie in terms of aspiration, and maybe I’m just showing favoritism when I say he doesn’t live up to this movie. The movie that reminded me the most was Dunes, another movie trying so hard to be impressive that it forgets to be actually interesting. Maybe you disagree with me on this, and you’re welcome. That’s probably as good an overview of what this movie looks like as I can give: if you liked Dunes, you’ll probably like this. I didn’t and although I enjoyed The man from the north considerably more, maybe it’s just because this movie at least tells a full story, and I didn’t walk away feeling like I’d just watched a three-hour teaser.
The man from the north is a very traditional revenge story. Boy loses dad, mom gets kidnapped. The boy becomes the man, the man comes home to kill daddy’s killer and save mommy. However, the man meets the woman and must choose between living well as the best revenge and the usual revenge. The kind with axes and war crimes. It’s more or less Hamletalthough tonally closer to macbeth if it was from Malcolm’s point of view. Young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) adores his father Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), but when his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang) sets his sights on the throne and queen of Aurvandil (Nicole Kidman), Amleth is sent on the run. While in exile, he becomes a fearsome warrior (Alexander Skarsgard), and returns to seek revenge on Fjolnir, meeting a beautiful Russian peasant girl (Anya Taylor-Joy) en route.
Obviously, a considerable portion of the film’s budget went into securing this international distribution. If I were Kate Dickie and Ralph Ineson, I’d feel quite irritated that after giving such performances in Eggers’ breakthrough, I ended up in supporting roles supporting Hollywood stars like Nicole Kidman and Ethan Hawke. Maybe it was something the studio had mandated, refusing to fund such an ambitious venture without a few big names attached. If so, they certainly got their wish, with cameo appearances also from Willem Dafoe as a licensed mad-shaman and living legend Bjork as a blind seer.
After trying so hard to get such an illustrious cast, it’s a shame they don’t have much to do but roar and cringe at each other. The film consists mostly of action scenes that mostly take place in one take, and scenes of rural paranoia that feel like they’re trying to recreate the intense claustrophobic atmosphere of The Vitch. The most notable scenes in the film are whenever there is a feverish vision or ritual, or otherwise a touch of the sublime and supernatural. There’s a smoke hole scene at the start, a few visions of the journey to Valhalla, a conversation with a withered head, and a funeral sequence straight out of a nightmare. These scenes are beautiful, showing the commitment of the actors and the insane world of death worship that the characters inhabit and that drives their every action. However, scenes like this have to move heaven and earth to make this redundant reiteration of formal revenge tropes feel necessary, fresh, and vital.
Even the action scenes are unexciting, having neither a sense of finesse and raw power nor a convincing sense of tooth and nail danger. The depressing and enduring vogue of filming action scenes in overly long tracking shots refuses to die and here robs each of the battle scenes of a sense of rhythm, speed or danger, or even a heavy sense of tragic inevitability. It just gives you a good look at which extras are pulling their punches or swinging at nothing for our anti-hero to get the win. With the possible exception of the last one, which takes place at least in a sick arena, the fight scenes are the most boring moments of The man from the north and it is a sad situation.
When it comes to character drama, you’d be looking in the wrong place, though you could be forgiven for doing so since the film devotes so much time to the psychology of its world and characters. Probably the most interesting character is Kidman’s Queen Gudrun, who is such a ruthless and chaotic enigma that one can hardly imagine her new marriage bringing about the peaceful balance that Amleth’s return is meant to disrupt. Skarsgard lacks the sense of wounded pride and deep anger in his bones that the role demands and he is simply about ten years too old. We’re not told how much time has passed since his exile, but a more vulnerable youth would have given the role an easy sense of tragedy that seems to be missing here. He’s just not a compelling antihero, and feels like a one-note power fantasy rather than the protagonist in a tale of misplaced pride and tragic revenge.
People have discussed the inconsistent accents a lot and this is one place where I will firmly plant my flag on the movie side. It is recognized on several occasions that these characters came from all over the North Sea: Scotland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Denmark, Iceland. It’s a slave empire that took captures from all over, so the fact that two people don’t seem to come from the same place is an entirely justified and necessary part of the film’s plot. Perhaps you find some of the more unconvincing and distracting cod accents, but it would be a shame if that kind of superficial criticism dominated the conversation around you. The man from the north. There’s a backlash against every movie of any kind of success these days and if we let that argument be the standard bearer for “The man from the north isn’t totally great, actually! so we make straw men out of ourselves. There are deeper, more nuanced issues that you or I may not have enjoyed our time with this film.
There are also plenty of reasons why you might do it. While its thematic waters aren’t any deeper than the average Marvel movie, and even if it doesn’t quite deliver on its promised spectacle, it’s still refreshing to see a period epic like this on the big screen in 2022. It’s new to see a movie go so strong and still do the rounds and applaud Eggers and company for not playing it safe. Even if the story they chose to embark on wasn’t exactly a winning one, who can look at even one frame of this movie and not totally believe that everyone put their all into it? ? Even if I don’t like The man from the north, I really, really wanted it and a part of me still does. There’s some really good stuff in there and if jaw-dropping visuals and hardcore male-on-male action is further up your street than mine, I can safely predict you’ll have a blast with it.