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Hollywood’s new movie ‘The Northman’ is shamelessly brutal

Franchise action movies are in love with justice. ‘James Bond’, ‘Superman’, ‘Iron Man’, ‘Harry Potter’ and even ‘Ghostbusters’ go out of their way to let you know that the people on screen don’t shoot, kick or bang each other. don’t blow up for fun. They shoot each other, hit each other or blow themselves up for real. The special effects and choreography are anchored in a moralizing tale that justifies the excesses of violence and the numerous explosions.

Based on the same Danish legend that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the film is a story of revenge and bloodshed for its own good.

Robert Eggers’ historical action epic “The Northman” is decidedly, and gloriously, unconcerned with justice or making matters right. Based on the same Danish legend that inspired Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” the film is a tale of revenge and blood for its own good, which forcefully cuts a sharp ax through any moral catharsis. Like the crows that occasionally flap across the screen, viewers are not there to witness the triumph of heroism. They are there to feast on carrion.

The revenge plot swings as effectively as a scythe. In the 800s AD, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) is murdered by his brother, Fjölnir (Claes Bang), who also seizes and marries Aurvandill’s queen, Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Aurvandill’s son Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) escapes and swears to avenge his father, save his mother, and kill Fjölnir.

After a few years of working as a mercenary, Amleth joins a Rus raiding party that destroys a village and enslaves the inhabitants. He discovers that the captives are meant for Fjölnir, who has been driven from his home by the King of Norway and now lives in reduced conditions in Iceland. Amleth disguises herself as a slave and plots to assassinate Fjölnir with the help of another slave, Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), and the requisite magic sword.

We see Amleth’s childhood horror when Fjölnir kills his father; viewers will likely be on his side. But Eggers makes sure it’s clear that Amleth isn’t the to the right side. The scene where he bursts into the village is a rapturously filmed panorama of war crimes: prisoners killed, women and children murdered, prisoners burned alive. Amleth participates without any apparent qualms. The fight choreography is brutal, animal and effective; Amleth cuts a swathe through opponents who are obviously less well trained and are just trying to defend their families. He rips out a poor man’s throat with his teeth.

Fjölnir isn’t a cartoonish villain either. Yes, he enslaves people, murders with impunity and tries to rape Olga. He’s a bad person. But he obviously cares about his wife and children. He and Amleth are brutal and vicious men who take what they want and inflict bloody violence on those who stand in their way.

This spectacle of carnage is the point of the film, and Eggers knows viewers know it.

This spectacle of carnage is the point of the film, and Eggers knows viewers know it. Amleth is bound by fate. He must fulfill his plot of revenge so he can die in battle and enter Odin’s Hall, as told to him by a number of seers (notably the one played by Björk). Is this a fanciful pagan notion? Or is it the logic of the action/revenge movie? For Eggers, it’s the same thing; the old cycle of violence and the new cycle of violence are caught in the same giant world tree that haunts the visions of Amleth.

The movie could easily end an hour later, if Amleth had just killed Fjölnir as soon as he arrived at the farm. But, as he tells Olga, it’s not time yet; he must continue to follow fate, or intrigue. A little further on, when Fjölnir captures and defeats him, Amleth confidently tells his uncle that he cannot be killed yet because now is not the time. It sounds like a mystical prediction. But it could also be the star of a movie checking his watch and discovering that the running time hasn’t ended.

Amleth falters on certain points. He wonders if hate is really the only way, or if he can turn away from it for love. But ultimately fear chains him to his destiny. He fears that Fjölnir will never let him, so he returns to his fate – although the decision was never really in doubt. An action movie must have a climactic battle. And this one, straddling a volcanic fissure, is very effective.

Before going on a raid, Amleth performs an animal ritual – growling and declaring that he has given up his human features to become a bear or a wolf. Awareness, compassion, kindness are set aside for the cracking of skulls. Amleth does not claim to be fair. He pretends not to have to think about righteousness at all.

Eggers offers its viewers a similar experience of amorality. This isn’t a superhero movie where the conceit is that every mega-explosion saves another baby. The vast and desaturated vistas, austere and open, offer little hiding place for hypocrisy or self-deception. “The Northman” offers a meticulous staging of hatred and death. It was then popular; it’s popular now.


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