Robert Eggers’s third film is admirable and entertaining, but there’s still a sense of the director playing it a little safe, To be or not to be a remake of Hamlet: that is the question. The answer is that Robert Eggers’s new period epic The Northman is based on the same 12th century legend that initially inspired William Shakespeare. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Sulking in exile after the murder of his father by an unscrupulous uncle, a Scandanavian prince plots his return and revenge. There will be blood. All the way back in 1993, Last Action Hero spoofed the idea of Hamlet as blockbuster spectacle—a classic recontextualized in the vulgar language of Hollywood. That was satire; Eggers’s broad, muscular slab of Vikingsploitation earnestly gives it a shot. There’s a bit of Arnold Schwarzenegger here, too: In high-concept terms, The Northman is Hamlet meets Conan the Barbarian, with all the bloody pulp, bulging abs, and hallucinatory grandeur that marriage implies. Instead of a guy monologuing mournfully to a skull in a graveyard, we get crucial dialogue delivered by a severed head. Alas, poor Willem Dafoe—we knew him well.
Dafoe’s decapitated cameo provides The Northman with one of its undeniable highlights. His presence also creates a point of connection to Eggers’s last outing, The Lighthouse, which dealt with big themes of isolation, masculinity, and madness in the guise of a slow-burning, phantasmagorical maritime legend (with Dafoe basically playing the Sea Captain from The Simpsons). Big themes are sort of Eggers’s thing; three films into a career that began with the rich Puritan symbolism and expertly engineered shocks of The Witch—a Nathaniel Hawthorne–style folktale examining dogmatic Christian misogyny and the symbiotic relationship between good and evil—the 38-year-old director continues to weave and stretch the fabric of genre cinema around his ideas like a pro. Certainly, the nearly $90 million price tag for The Northman suggests a filmmaker who’s currently in fashion. What’s at stake in its release is on one level industrial: the commercial prospects of blockbuster entertainment not derived from expensive IP (unless you consider the Shakespeare Extended Universe to be a rival to Marvel). More importantly, though, the film is an aesthetic reckoning for its creator and his audience. In a moment when any filmmaker with a recognizable style is being hailed as a visionary, it’s worth asking whether Eggers just has decent taste in hand-me-downs, plucking his imagery off the rack from the Kubrick and Tarkovsky wing of the Criterion Collection. It’s also worth asking, even more skeptically, whether The Northman is just the emperor’s new clothes—the pricey, brand-conscious work of a faux-teur exposed by his own naked hubris?
If that sounds harsh, consider that one of The Northman’s stars, Ethan Hawke, used the H-word himself while playing expert witness in a recent New Yorker profile of Eggers. Hawke meant it as a compliment: “I’ve spent my life wondering, ‘Will I ever get to be on a set that feels like Apocalypse Now?,’ he said. “You know, like, somebody’s trying. They have the balls, and the hubris and the arrogance to say, ‘I want to make a masterpiece.’” That unapologetic yearning for greatness—and for tableaus imbued with some vast, Coppola-sized scale—is palpable in The Northman’s early scenes, which center on Hawke’s weary, battle-scarred monarch Aurvandil War-Raven. Returning to his castle after a successful foreign campaign, Hawke heads a military procession whose slow creep through a filthy village and up a foggy mountain allows Eggers to indulge in the kind of dexterous, extended shots that get directors crowned as kings—world-building as a form of showing off. In period epics, showmanship and scholarship are often intertwined, and Eggers is a stickler for detail. Like David Lowery’s recent Medievalist fantasia The Green Knight, The Northman is trying to apply state-of-the-art craft to old-school material. (If The Green Knight was classical balladry, The Northman plays like its black metal B-side.) Eggers’s biggest interest is in linguistic authenticity: The Witch and The Lighthouse were both written and acted in rigorously old-timey dialects. The Northman, which was cowritten by the Icelandic poet Sjon, has its share of subtitled passages as well, although not as many as its makers might have hoped. Instead, the characters speak in a uniformly Nordic lilt. “Maybe one day I can self-finance my own historical epics like Mel Gibson, but it had to be in English,” Eggers told The Independent. “Given the choices, I think I picked the best.