a bloody fable of revenge and folk horror

Director Robert Eggers has become a singular cinematic voice with two films before The Northman (2022), which opens April 22, first the chilling “New England folk tale” of the century XVII ‘The witch’ (The VVITCH, 2015), and the much lower ‘The lighthouse’ (The Lighthouse, 2018), another reimagining of a popular Welsh story with which he continued his style of loading the atmospheres in which their relatively low budgetsthey created expansive worlds without difficulty.

On this occasion, without the shadow of the A24 label, the director remains faithful to his style, although now he is facing a Viking epic with a budget of 90 million dollars, on the story of revenge that would have inspired Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, who was no stranger to Scandinavian legends. Perhaps because of these connections, this look at the history of princes and murders bears resemblance to ‘Othelo’ and ‘Macbeth’ (1971) by Roman Polanski.

Not only was this a contradictory blend of gritty ’70s realism and theatrical conviction, it blurred the lines of the figurative and the supernatural, including much of the imaginary of what we now know and label as folk horrorbefore if anything the movement’s best-known film, ‘The Wicker Man’ (The Wicker Man, 1973), which is also the main inspiration for another A24 hit like ‘Midsommar’ (2019), with which Ari Aster included Norse pagan mythology as part of a current culture clash.

Viking epic bloody and leaky to terror

And as if he wanted to complement his friend’s film in some way, Eggers has co-written with the Icelandic poet Sjón which is his attempt to make “the definitive viking movie”in which he fills the screen with all the visual elements recognizable from its context, from hallucinogenic drugs, tapestries, bear skins, runes, grotesque ritual deaths within a shared mythology written in runes and the definitive postcard to connect them , a fashionable actress with a flower crown.

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Here is Anya Taylor-Joy who recites the texts of a script without sifting, full of epithets about revenge and fate that cry out for a synthesis to accompany the fabulous visual storytelling released by the director. And it is that the plot is recognizable and simple enough to avoid the rhetorical falsehoods that are amalgamated in moments that do not need them, like trying to push forward a story that is only a canvas for the careful aesthetic packaging that consolidates rich photography. in Shades of Darkness by Jarin Blaschke.

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The actresses, by the way, are the ones who win against the male castboth Taylor-Joy, fantastic, björkcompleting her cycle as an actress with another witch role after her debut in ‘When We Were Witches’ (The Juniper Tree, 1990), as Nicole Kidman, undoubtedly the most convincing of the cast alongside Willem Dafoe. And it is that many seem to be in a play embedded in a precious diorama of rock and wood, sometimes with performances so extreme that gives the impression that we are in a Monty Python version of the ‘Valhalla Rising’ by Nicolas Winding Refn.

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And it is that excess is not new in Eggers’ work, and after the eschatological concertina of ‘El faro’, in which the actors shouted at each other, spat, roared and howled hysterically, in ‘El hombre del norte’ many rituals have Ethan Hawke and Alexander Skarsgård do the same on occasion, and although they don’t go to extremes of parody, they do there is a certain chirigota and sometimes involuntary laughter appears when confronted with the solemn tone of some lines in more intimate moments.

A study bet for something different

And it is that Eggers does not have a blade as sharp as Aster and the histrionic outbursts of the film do not have black humor but rather an ironic look at the culture itself that it tries to faithfully represent, letting the image capture rituals and ceremonies in the that its characters believe, but leaving such a wide distance with the viewer that it reaches an almost documentary level. But the director plays here with the constant mixture of earthly sanity with hallucinationthe effect of beliefs carried to a level of perpetual illusion.

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This is what makes the game with the ambiguity of ‘El hombre del norte’ work better than in ‘El faro’, in which the achievement of artistic references was turned upside down without connecting with the anxieties of its protagonists, while in this they mean everything to their characters, they are the water they drink and the stories they liveso that although there is always some sign for the viewer of how far the underworld is not going to go, there is indeed a game with magic, omens and destiny.

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This mystical material gives Eggers space to return to her world of ‘The Witch’, with supernatural animals, naked people around bonfires, levitations and an atmosphere close to terror on many occasions, which is combined with bloody images of ritual deathsacrifices, from where he updates an almost western approach that makes ‘El hombre del norte’ constantly cross the lines of the genre, despite the fact that it is always clear about its status as a revenge film, within a context of sword and sorcery.

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Conan fans will enjoy that recreation of the search for the sword in the corpse on the throne straight out of the John Milius adaptation, or the scene of the assault on the village and the beheading that the boy Amleth witnesses, but Eggers also looks at the Soviet fantastic cinema of Aleksandr Ptushko and Aleksandr Rou such as ‘Sampo’ (1959) or ‘Kashchei the immortal’ (1945) and, above all, to the Viking trilogy of Hrafn Gunnlaugssonwhich he updates by proposing an almost revenge approach told like Eastwood’s westerns.

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Eggers’ film seeks formal excellence but sometimes stumbles over its own self-importance, fitting in with the recent trend of evoking legend-telling as a moving pop-up book of ‘The Green Knight’ (2021) –with the one that also shares guide foxes–, and that fixation on the frontal close-up so much of A24 that it begins to become a cliché of cinema with artistic aspirations that is encasing this and other directors.

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But the symbiosis with a large studio corrects a lot of the eccentric drift of the author’s previous film and opens the world to a large audience that can enjoy an overwhelming visual spectacle that ends up gaining traction in its second half, making ‘The Northman’ an very rare example of a no-strings-attached blockbuster, not radical but brave and unusual within a market in which films like this one, ‘The Gorge Guide’ (2008) or ‘Centurion’ (2010) are rejected by the box office.