The Northman (2022) – Movie Review: Alternative Ending

I’m always a sucker for movies that tell us early on how to approach them, and The Norwegian – the third feature film directed by Robert Eggers after the 2015s The witch and 2019 The lighthouse, and the one where I’m comfortable declaring to the whole world that he’s officially my new favorite American filmmaker for the last 10 years – is particularly accommodating on that front. The very first thing we see is a volcano that barks lava that fills the frame; the very first thing we hear is a statement from the god Óðinn emerging from the heart of the volcano with a rumbling, electronically distorted voice that is not credited, but I suppose it is probably a composition of several of the film’s male actors. It does not matter, or rather, it almost does not matter that the film do not do tell us who makes the voice, because it contributes to the very important feeling the film is already working to create: that we listen to actual Óðinn (okay, fine, “Odin”, I stop now), something deep and cosmic and primordial. And that’s just it The Norwegian wants and needs us to think, for what the film tells us right now, and will demand that we know every single one of the film’s 136 minutes later, is that we watch a film in which Odin exists in a real, tangible , not-great way.

Or, at least, that this is a movie made in Odin’s existing mindset. With pleasure The witch (to which it feels more like a direct follow-up than any of them feels like a piece with The lighthouse), The Norwegian boasts as one of its best strengths that the filmmakers tell a story built around a completely different moral and philosophical and even aesthetic worldview than our own. And it goes even further since The witch is still ultimately grounded in Protestant Christianity, and presents a worldview that I imagine the vast majority of English viewers would at least be able to recognize as a variant of one that still roughly exists. The Norwegian, on the other hand, is set between 895 and around 915 CE, among the northerners of northern Europe. Christianity is briefly mentioned and is considered a kind of impenetrable foreign religion that is dissuasive but probably harmless. And that’s the closest thing the film comes to crossing the mental landscape of living people.

The film’s narrative reflects a completely foreign way of inhabiting the world. It’s a revenge story; at least that’s it, only a revenge story. It has cut down to the bone everything that does not fit into exact, “a boy’s father is brutally slaughtered and he spends the rest of his life planning how to brutally slaughter the responsible man”. There are no notes of grace or flourishing, only a fixed line marching from point A to point B. The manuscript of Eggers and the Icelandic poet Sjón treats the idea of ​​fate as an active force in human daily life, a force very serious. as all-pervading and irresistible as gravity – or, in keeping with the film’s brutal, raw backdrop, as irresistible as the deadly icy seawater and the characteristic faces of the granite mountains. And it tells its story with that dedication to fate locked in place. It is a film with inflexible straight lines – almost literal straight lines, visualized in the film’s fantastic tracking images.

Not even shot tracking, really: push-ins. Eggers and film photographer Jarin Blaschke have stuck to an irreconcilable compositional style that feels as ruthlessly dependent on right angles as anything else on this page by Wes Anderson, even though it is used for almost exact opposite reasons: no precious dollhouse dioramas here, only relentless networks of movement through space and within frames. Push-ins are the best of these: throughout the film, the camera moves relentlessly in perfect straight lines toward groups of characters, keeping them centered in compositions. It is somehow liquid and inorganic at the same time, like water flowing down a rocky surface. Since we know that Eggers loves to play with the psychological effect of letters (it is certainly correct to claim to call a movie VVitch sets us up for a very special emotional and intellectual experience that just is The witch do not), I think it’s just a little bit to say that the push-ins put me in the mind of a runic alphabet, like the one used for all the title cards in The Norwegian (they are then subtitled in English). Runes are, after all, a type of rental that suits the culture that used them: merciless, designed not for beauty, but to survive the harsh condition of being etched violently into stone. Runes are cold and pragmatic and intended to live in rocky places that mostly know winter. And push-ins have the same kind of feeling. There is nothing flashy about them. They are blunt. They are cut into the world of film and they do not guide us as much as forcing us to look at things. Sometimes a little extra movement is added to the images, and it always reinforces that feeling: for example, an early tracking shot begins to move 45 degrees away from the lens face towards the young prince, roughly transforming a group image. to a single who looks at him in his last moments of happy childhood innocence. Later, a shot moves into a boat on a river, turning 90 degrees to look ahead and then 90 degrees more to see the shore we just moved from, as if we were moving something Other things than an exact 90 degrees would crush the inflexible POV in the primitive, less civilized environment.

And oh! how inflexible it is, and oh! how barely-civilized. The Norwegian is based on the legend of Amleth, which is certainly best known by English speakers today as the ultimate source material for William Shakespeare’s plays. Hamlet; this movie and that play have both moved a decent distance away from the legend and not in the same direction. So the only thing left is Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), whose father King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) was killed by his bastard half-uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), and whose mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) was married of the same bastard. To get close enough to Fjölnir to strike a fatal blow, Amleth pretends to be a mentally retarded Russian slave, and after creating the pretense, waiting – in this case for the signs that fate gave him, not because of any inner psychological struggle that Shakespeare gave to his Hamlet. The Norwegian can not really afford his cast any internal psychology. It would not be consistent with the brutally straightforward moral universe it’s unfolding, and which consists of two kinds of people: the vicious, animal thugs we mess with, and the vicious, animal thugs we hope to see. die violently. And also Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), an actual Russian slave that Amleth falls in love with, but just because she’s not an animal thug does not mean she really ends up with a character.

Given the extremely harsh limitations the film sets for them, the cast performs a phenomenal job, being expressive and hitting big epic emotional states. The ones who are the best are the ones who manage to feel the least like real people, ideally because they play characters who seem to emerge from the mists of dreams and myths: literally, as the two best characters, with the two best performances backing them up, are Willem Dafoe as a mysterious fool and Iceland’s favorite song-elven queen Björk (who has collaborated with Sjón as a lyricist) as a viewer who gives voice to the same. The fate that feels more like a real character than anyone else in the film. Björk’s lonely scene – it breaks my heart that she is not in more of the film, and at the same time I think it’s the right choice – is the film’s highlight, a phantasmagoric nightmare where she seems to merge out of it gray darkness taking place Blaschke seems to be experimenting with the absolute least amount of light you need to expose 35mm film. We first see here as three serpentine eyes floating in a flat misty room, and slowly a mouth appears under these eyes, and they turn out to be shells or pearls dangling from a headdress she is wearing, two of the shells floating over the darkened holes where her real eyes are not. It’s an image that feels both brand new and impossibly ancient, and although I think the film’s insistence on taking the northerners’ superstition and cosmology at face value pays off quite constantly throughout the film, it pays off the most here.

The other thing the film takes for granted is the ugly, guttural brutality of life on the shores of the North Sea about 1000 years ago. The project started from Skarsgård’s desire to star in a proper Viking film, and I have no idea if there is a gram of historical accuracy here, but it certainly does. feel as if this is digging into something terrible and powerful about the violence of that life. The film goes right up to the edge of how much violence can certainly be placed in a mainstream film, but it is not even really the violence By my self there lingers, not even the striking, self-consciously iconic staging of the violence as battles between silhouettes in fog, in the deep blue night, against a raging volcano. It is festival of violence. Far more than any of the film’s beheadings, stabbings, mutilations or removals (and these should in fact all be plural forms), what caught my eye and scared me was a scene of Amleth and several other Vikings, dressed in animal skins. of berserker, dancing in an eerily perfect, yes, melodic rhythm, while a war poem was roared out. And just as much as I have loved alliterative poetry ever since completely failed to read Beowulf in the original Old English at a young age, I do not think I realized before The Norwegian how much intense, furious momentum could be wrapped up in that form’s characteristic, archaic patterns. And the camera makes its ruthless straight line motion, while the actors describe chaotic but eerily precise circles. It’s the film’s best evocation of all the themes that run through it: life as ritualized violence, pattern and repetition, men reducing themselves – or, more terribly, lifting to the status of voracious wildlife.

The whole thing is very gloomy and cruel. And stylistically intoxicating: the film’s fog and rugged landscapes and impenetrable night scenes all add up to images that combine raw ugliness and ethereal beauty in one striking unity. And I was pretty carried away by Robin Carolan and Sebastian Gainsborough’s musical score, which pulsated with a more refined, artful version of the same primitive instinct that animated the rest of the film. But very gloomy and cruel, and its defiantly anti-modern approach to storytelling is almost deliberately deterrent: naturalistic character psychology does not even exist here as a rumor, and the story consists of a plot point, repeated and repeated and reversed and refined over two hours in a way that borrows more from oral epic poetry than cinematic narrative. But my God, it’s amazing, totally unlike anything else being released in cinemas: It was an idiotic money laundering, and every penny that Focus Features does not get back is right on screen. Not that the last two years “count”, but I have not enjoyed a movie so much since long before the pandemic started in 2020, and I have not been so eager to revisit the foreign cadences in a cool new movie since. .. in fact since The lighthouseso there you have it.

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