[Warning: There be spoilers below.]
Without being too familiar in general with the work of director Robert Eggers, this film is a satisfying one if you have a high degree of respect for the grim worldview of the Norse, which this film manages to portray in a fashion that gives honor to its fatalism and its ethical codes without in any way sugarcoating the emptiness and futility of vengeance as a life’s ambition. Ultimately, this film is one that affirms the worth of life rather than death, that wrestles honestly and deeply about questions of fate and free will. This is probably not the sort of film that is accessible or interesting to a mass audience–not least because the austerity and severity of the Norse religion is not one that tends to resonate with the immaturity and frivolity of our times. Over and over again characters tell each other to master their emotions and to behave like men and not to lose face in front of their inferiors, and this advice is just as commonly ignored. And if the ending certainly brings the story to a close in a fitting fashion, it is also just as much a Greek tragedy as it is a Norse tragedy with plenty of shades of a Shakespearean tragedy like Hamlet, and we should not be under any illusions that it is a tragedy and a waste on multiple levels.
There is a lot to praise about this movie. The direction is solid, if frequently filmed in a shade of dark that seems a lot like the latest Batman movie that was drenched in darkness and gray, which I similarly remarked upon. And it should be noted that there is a lot in this movie that resembles that of The Batman, although the relationship between the titular Northman Amleth played by Alexander Skarsgård and his Slav slave beloved Olga of the Birch Forest, played ably and super-creepily by Anya Taylor-Joy, is far more convincing than that between the Batman and Catwoman, so it has that going for it. Supporting characters like Nicole Kidman (playing quite a Queen Gertrude, if you know you know) as well as the brother-kings Aurvandil War-Raven (played by Ethan Hawke) and Fjölnir The Brotherless (played by Claes Bang), the Fool (played by Willem Dafoe), and a super creepy seeress played by Bjork all do a great job as well in driving the story along and providing plenty of terror. One gets a real sense of the feeling of terror and fear that the Norse had of the supernatural, and that helps ground the story with a sense of seriousness that allows the character’s motives to make sense, and makes their sense of doom all the more palpable to the viewer.
Not everyone will enjoy what this film has to offer. This film has a lot of violence and nudity, and fully earns its R-rating with both that as well as occasionally nasty language, especially from the baddies in contempt of their slaves. If the Norse religion is portrayed as being particularly bloodthirsty, the film itself views its characters, regardless of their religion, with a sense of dignity. There aren’t really a lot of simple characters here, and the shades of gray which fill this film’s color palette are matched by the shades of gray of their behavior. Vikings murder, rape, and pillage, and the strong do what they can and the weak do what they must to survive. Ultimately, the film itself shows what sort of plans can be brought to fruition and what good can result even from terrible and negative situations from the marriage of strength and honor combined with intelligence and cunning. And yet even that is not enough to make the world a place that is easy to live in. So much in this film depends on chance circumstances, and on the way that those circumstances are faced bravely if sometimes fatalistically. If the main character is not someone who we ultimately fully endorse, his behavior helps to bring an end to one age and sets up a situation where another world, one less devoted to violence and terror, can spring up in its place. Whether or not this director is interested in such a tale is unknown, but if this movie is a tragedy, is one which ends in hope and not in despair.