Review: ‘The Northman,’ starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk and Willem Dafoe

April 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga in “The Northman” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features)

“The Northman”

Directed by Robert Eggers

Culture Representation: Taking place in Northern and Eastern Europe, from the years 894 to approximately 919, the fantasy action film “The Northman” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: In this Viking version of “Hamlet,” an exiled prince seeks to avenge the murder of his father, who was killed by the father’s brother.

Culture Audience: “The Northman” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s all-star cast, filmmaker Robert Eggers and Viking stories that are gory but realistically violent.

Oscar Novak, Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman in “The Northman” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features)

Brutally violent but artistically stunning, “The Northman” brings harsh realism and dreamy mythology to this Viking story that inspired William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” It cannot be said enough times as a warning: “The Northman” is not for viewers who are easily offended by on-screen depictions of bloody gore and sadistic violence. There are scenes in this movie that can best be described as downright filthy—and not just because these scenes have people covered in dirt, blood and other grime. There’s a filth of the mind that plagues many of the characters in “The Northman,” where murder, rape, torture and other assaults are a way of life to conquer and subjugate others.

American filmmaker Robert Eggers has made a career out of exploring the dark side of humanity in the movies that he writes and directs. His feature films—beginning with 2015’s “The Witch” and 2019’s “The Lighthouse”—have a rare combination of taking place in an otherworldly atmosphere while depicting people and events as if they are historically accurate. “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” are defined by elements of horror, while “The Northman” (Eggers’ third feature film, which he co-wrote with Sjón) can be defined by elements of tragedy. “The Northman” is also a movie about Vikings, vengeance and violence.

Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” play was itself based on the medieval Scandinavian legend of Amleth, the story of a prince who vows to get deadly revenge for the murder of his father, who was betrayed and killed by the father’s brother. “The Northman” weaves into the story aspects of Scandinavian folklore, the occult and the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. The end result is an immersive cinematic experience that is both menacing and magical.

“The Northman” begins in the year 894, on the fictitious Scottish island kingdom of Hrafnsey, which is close to Orkney Island and Shetland Island. Hrafnsey is ruled by King Aurvandil War-Raven (played by Ethan Hawke), a confident leader who has just returned to the land after about three months away from home. King Aurvandil has a happy family life with his wife Queen Gudrún (played by Nicole Kidman) and their son Amleth (played by Oscar Novak), who’s about 10 or 11 years old when the story begins.

“The Lighthouse” co-star Willem Dafoe has a small role in “The Northman” as a court jester named Heimir the Fool. King Aurvandil is amused by Heimir’s talents, while the king’s jealous younger brother Fjölnir (played by Claes Bang) is dismissive and condescending to Heimir. The scene with the brothers’ two very different reactions to Heimir are meant to show their contrasting personalities and how they interact with people.

King Aurvandil is fixated on the idea that Amleth should be ready to lead Hrafnsey, because the king has a premonition that he will die soon. Aurvandil does not know when he will die, but he is certain of how he will die: “I must die by the sword. I will die in honor,” he says. Gudrún doesn’t like to hear Aurvandil talk this way, and she insists that Amleth is too young to learn about royal adult responsibilities. Nevertheless, Aurvandil and Amleth do a male-bonding ritual around a campfire together, where a shaman leads the father and son to enact various wolf mannerisms while proving that they’re still human.

Although the king is beloved by many of his subjects, there is a cabal of people waiting to betray him. Leading this traitorous group is Fjölnir, who is cruel, power-mad and ruthless. One day, when King Aurvandil and Amleth are spending some father-son time in a forest, Fjölnir and about a dozen of his cronies ambush the king and viciously murder him, while Amleth witnesses everything.

Amleth manages to hide and escape, but not before using a knife to cut off the nose of a brute named Finnr (played by Eldar Skar), who later lies to everyone by saying that he killed Amleth. For the rest of the movie, Finnr is known as Finnr the Nose-Stub. Amleth runs back home, only to find out that Fjölnir and his gang are plundering the land, invading homes, and letting everyone know that the king is dead and Fjölnir is now in charge. One of the last things that a terrified Amleth sees before he runs away from Hrafnsey is his mother being kidnapped by Fjölnir’s cronies.

The movie then fast-forwards about 20 years later. Amleth (played by Alexander Skarsgård) is now a strapping, angry man, who has joined a group of marauding killers hired to help conquer villages in Eastern Europe. Those who are not killed in these villages are held captive as slaves. “The Northman” has several of these invasion scenes that are not for the faint of heart. Amleth has become extremely jaded and callous in all the violence and murders he commits as a berserker warrior.

However, Amleth soon has a vision of a mystic named Seeress (played by Björk), who reminds Amleth that his immediate purpose in life is to avenge his father’s death. This sets Amleth on a path to disguise himself as a slave and go on a slave ship heading to Iceland. It’s on this ship that he meets Olga of the Birch Forest (played by Anya Taylor-Joy, the breakout star of “The Witch”), an enslaved Slavic devotee of the mystic arts. In other words, Olga is a witch. Amleth and Olga have a mutual attraction to each other that goes exactly where you think it’s going to go.

Amleth is going to Iceland, because it’s where Fjölnir has now settled with Amleth’s mother Gudrún, who is now Fjölnir’s wife. Fjölnir and Gudrún have two sons together: brash young adult Thórir the Proud (played by Gustav Lindh) and obedient pre-teen Gunnar (played by Elliot Rose), who have been brought up in a life of royal privilege. For all of his flaws and evil deeds, Fjölnir loves his sons immensely and will do anything to protect them. Considering how Gudrún ended up with Fjölnir, she is treated just like a trophy wife.

“The Northman” often has simplistic and cliché dialogue, but the cast members’ performances are mostly convincing. Skarsgård and Bang have a great deal of physicality in their roles as Amleth and Fjölnir, which play out in the expected “protagonist versus antagonist” ways. What they both bring to these characters is an added level of emotional depth that becomes more compelling when this nephew and uncle, who are sworn enemies, actually have something in common: their love of family as their biggest emotional vulnerability.

Kidman struggles with sticking to the same accent (sometimes she sounds Scottish, Nordic, Icelandic or various combinations of all three), but her overall performance as Gudrún is riveting, because Gudrún is the most complicated character in the story. Taylor-Joy is perfectly cast as the cunning and (literally) bewitching Olga. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles.

Aside from the disturbing violence, “The Northman” will leave an impact on viewers because of how it creates a world caught in between medieval truths and timeless mythology. There are haunting and compelling scenes involving pagan rituals, ascending into heavenly spaces, and transforming someone’s interior body into some kind of mystical realm, with entrails snaking around like winding tree branches. “The Northman” also has more than a few nods to psychedelia, including Olga’s psychedelic mushrooms that are used as a weapon in this family feud.

“The Northman” greatly benefits from the almost-hypnotic cinematography of Jarin Blaschke, a longtime collaborator of Eggers. Whether or not people enjoy Eggers’ movies (which sometimes drag with slow pacing), there’s no denying that these films have top-notch cinematography. Viewers who can withstand the relentless onslaught of violence in “The Northman” can also appreciate that even amid the murder and mayhem, there are still glimmers of hope for humanity.

Focus Features will release “The Northman” in U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022.

Review: ‘Riders of Justice,’ starring Mads Mikkelsen

June 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Nicolas Bro, Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Lars Brygmann and Mads Mikkelsen in “Riders of Justice” (Photo by Rolf Konow/Magnet Releasing)

“Riders of Justice”

Directed by Anders Thomas Jensen

Danish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed cities in Denmark, the dramatic film “Riders of Justice” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few characters of Egyptian heritage) representing the middle-class and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A grieving widower, whose wife died in a train crash, teams up with three strangers to get revenge on the gang that they believe is responsible for the explosion.

Culture Audience: “Riders of Justice” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted and slightly quirky revenge stories that have unpredictable twists and turns.

Pictured clockwise, from bottom left: Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt, Gustav Lindh, Lars Brygmann, Andrea Heick Gadeberg and Nikolaj Lie Kaas in “Riders of Justice” (Photo by Rolf Konow/Magnet Releasing)

The usual clichés of vigilante dramas get a sly and occasionally far-fetched treatment in “Riders of Justice,” which is about coping with grief as much as it is about getting revenge. Written and directed by Anders Thomas Jensen, the movie sometimes veers into being a satire. But at its core, “Riders of Justice” is a mostly somber meditation on what can happen when trauma is left untreated.

The movie opens in Tallinn, Estonia, where an elderly man and his niece (played by Marta Riisalu) are looking at a red bicycle to buy as a possible Christmas gift. The niece says that she would prefer a blue bicycle, so the niece and uncle leave without buying the bike. Wanting to make an eventual sale to these potential customers, in case they come back, the bicycle shop owner (played by Kaspar Velberg) makes a call to an unknown person.

The next scene is somewhere in Denmark, where two men wearing hoodies step out of a white van. There’s a blue bicycle chained at a train station. The men break the chain and steal the bicycle, which they put in the van and drive off. It’s soon revealed that this blue bicycle belongs to a girl named Mathilde Hansen (played by Andrea Heick Gadeberg), who’s about 15 or 16 years old.

Mathilde lives with her mother Emma Hansen (played by Anne Birgitte Lind), while Emma’s husband/Mathilde’s father Markus Hansen (played by Mads Mikkelsen) is serving in the Danish military in the Afghanistan War. (This movie takes place before 2014, when Denmark withdrew from the war.) One day, Markus calls his family to tell them that the military has ordered him to stay in Afghanistan for three more months. Emma tells Markus that Mathilde’s bike has been stolen.

Mathilde has this reaction when she hears that her father Markus will be staying in Afghanistan longer than expected: “At least he won’t be sitting in the barn, staring into space like a vegetable.” It’s the first indication that Markus might have some issues with his mental health and that there’s tension in his relationship with Mathilde. Not much is shown about Markus and Emma’s marriage, but it appears to be a solid relationship.

The next day, when Emma is about to go to work and take Mathilde to school, the car won’t start. And so, Mathilde and Emma decide to take the train instead. In the mid-afternoon, when Mathilde and Emma are about to go home together, the train is fairly crowded, and a man politely offers Emma his seat. His name is Otto Hoffman (played by Nikolaj Lie Kaas), and he is a nerdy statistician who has recently given an ill-received presentation to an automobile manufacturing company about which demographics are most likely to buy certain car brands.

On the train, a major tragedy happens when the train derails and crashes into a parked freight train. In total, 11 people die in the crash. Emma is one of the deceased. Markus gets the news and rushes home from Afghanistan. Based on what happens later in the movie, it’s implied that a grieving Markus requested an honorable discharge from the military because he has to take care of Mathilde as a widower with no one else who can help him with childcare.

Emma’s death has devastated Markus and Mathilde, but they have very different ways of coping. Mathilde wants to talk about her grief and possibly get therapy, but Markus has the opposite reaction. Mathilde is open to finding some religious and spiritual comfort for her sadness, while Markus is a staunch athiest. Markus and Mathilde don’t even agree on when she should go back to school, because when she’s ready to go back, Markus thinks she should stay at home.

Adding to the tension, Markus doesn’t really approve of Mathilde’s teenage boyfriend Sirius (played by Albert Rudbeck Lindhardt), because he thinks Sirius is too emotionally sensitive and wimpy. Markus and Mathilde’s relationship, which was already troubled before Emma’s death, starts to get worse. They argue and can’t seem to agree on much because they are both stubborn in their beliefs. When Mathilde tells Markus that she misses her mother, Markus’ idea of comforting his daughter is to tell Mathilde: “You might as well learn now that unless you die at a young age, you will end up burying most of the people you love.”

During all of this family angst, it’s been reported on the news that two of the people who died in the train crash were former gang member John “Eagle” Ulrichsen and his attorney. Eagle had been scheduled to testify in court against his former gang called Riders of Justice, in a Kaalund Street murder case that killed four Turkish men. The leader of Riders of Justice is Kurt “Tandem” Olesen (played by Roland Møller), who is facing the most serious charges in the murder case because he is accused of being the mastermind of these killings.

Authorities have determined that the train crash was an accident. However, statistician Otto has calculated that the odds are next to impossible that it was an accident. He remembers seeing a suspicious-looking male passenger on the train. The man exited the train at the station that the train went to before the train derailed.

Otto doesn’t think it’s a coincidence. He begins to suspect that the train was tampered with, in order to kill Eagle, who was the star witness in the Kaalund Street Murder case. Otto takes his suspicions to the police, but two officers who listen to Otto’s theory don’t take him seriously at all. The cops are not impressed with Otto’s statistic that there was a 1 in 234, 287, 121 chance that the train crash was an accident.

Because he’s not willing to let go of his suspicions, Otto finds out more about Eagle and discovers that the former gang member was a creature of habit who always sat in the same train seat and he frequented a gym called Fitness World. Otto asks an eccentric colleague of his named Lennart Nielsen to hack into the Fitness World surveillance video system to prove that Eagle was obsessive compulsive with his routines. Otto and Lennart also get video surveillance footage from the train station to get a closer look at the man whom Otto suspects was involved in planning the train crash.

It isn’t long before Lennart gets caught up in this conspiracy theory too. Because the authorities have officially ruled the train crash an accident and the police don’t think it’s worth any further investigations, Otto and Lennart decide to visit Markus to tell him their theory. They’ve never met Markus before, but Emma’s name was reported in the news media as one of the train crash victims. Otto and Lennart were able to find out her address through computer database searches.

Otto also wants to visit Markus because Otto feels “survivor’s guilt” that Emma was in the seat that he offered to her on the train. And because Otto thinks the train crash was intentionally rigged, Otto also wants to see if Markus wants to help in this investigation over who might be responsible. When Otto and Lennart show up at Markus’ place, Markus’ reaction to the conspiracy theory is skeptical, to say the least. Markus somewhat gruffly sends Otto and Lennart away.

Undeterred in their mission, Otto and Lennart enlist the help of their former colleague Ulf Emmenthaler (played by Nicolas Bro), who’s an expert computer hacker, to use still images from the train video surveillance to get a photo of the “suspect.” Emmenthaler (who doesn’t like to be called Ulf) has facial recognition software that Otto and Lennart want Emmenthaler to use to find out who this mystery man is. At first, hot-tempered Emmenthaler thinks it’s a waste of time. But Otto and Lennart persist in asking Emmenthaler to help them, and he eventually does.

The only result for the facial recognition match, with a 99% certainty, is for a 38-year-old clinical dental technician named Aharon Nahas Shadid, who lives in the Egyptian capital of Cairo. Otto can’t believe that the person they’re looking for lives in Cairo. He asks Emmenthaler to lower the probability match to 95% certainty to see if there will be a match to anyone who lives in Denmark.

Sure enough, the match also comes back to a man named Palle Olesen (played by Omar Shargawi), who happens to be the brother of Riders of Justice gang leader Kurt “Tandem” Olesen. And when the three amateur sleuths find out that Palle has an electrical engineering background, it’s further information that they think points to Palle as being the one to rig the train so that it would derail. Otto takes this information to Markus, who is now convinced of this conspiracy theory too.

It isn’t long before Markus, Otto, Lennart and Emmenthalar show up unannounced at Palle Olesen’s house to confront him. They arrive together in Markus’ car. An argument breaks out, Palle pulls a gun on the four men, and Markus kills Palle by breaking his neck. (This isn’t spoiler information, since it’s in the “Riders of Justice” trailer.)

Palle’s murder was not planned in advance, so when it happens, there’s some panic among the four men. Lennart is the most paranoid about leaving behind any DNA or other evidence, so he insists on cleaning up before they leave. The other three men wait in the car. They’re all in various levels of shock over what just happened.

While cleaning up inside the house, Lennart sees a naked young man, who is bound, gagged and bent over on the arm of a couch. It’s clear that this man, who is in his 20s, witnessed the murder and was being held captive by Palle for some kind of sexual activity. Lennart and this mystery man make eye contact, and the expressions on their faces indicate that they both know exactly what this witness saw.

Lennart decides not to do anything about this witness and leaves him still bound and gagged in the house. But it won’t be the last time that this vigilante quartet will see this witness. His name is Bodashka Lytvynenko (played by Gustav Lindh), he’s a Ukrainian immigrant, and his story is eventually revealed in the movie.

The rest of “Riders of Justice” is about how the four men react to the murder by deciding they’re going to kill the rest of the Riders of Justice gang. Markus is the one who comes up with this idea, and he convinces the others to help him. What would drive these four previous law-abiding citizens to go on this vigilante rampage? It’s shown in various parts of the movie that all four men are emotionally damaged in some way.

Markus has the most obvious motive to go on this revenge killing spree, but there were hints that he was becoming mentally unhinged before Emma died. Mathilde (who does not know about Palle’s murder and this vigilante plan) senses that something is very wrong with her father, and she thinks that Markus needs therapy, but he refuses. And it turns out that Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler (who are all bachelors) used to work at the same company and all got fired around the same time.

Otto has a tragedy from his past that left him unable to use his right arm. Lennart is still dealing with trauma from his childhood, when he was abused by his father. Emmenthaler has a lot of pent-up rage against people he perceives as bullies, because he has been bullied and mistreated for much of his life.

Markus and his three cronies use the barn on his property as the headquarters for their planning. It isn’t long before computer whiz Emmenthaler has the barn decked out with all kinds of computer hacking equipment. The four men also use Markus’ property for target practice with their guns.

Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler spend so much time with Markus on his property that Mathilde gets suspicious. Emmenthaler and Lennart spontaneously lie to Mathilde and say that they are therapists and they have been meeting with Markus for grief counseling. Mathilde is thrilled that Markus is getting therapy, so she asks Emmenthaler and Lennart if they can give her counseling her too. Emmenthaler says that he only treats adults, but Lennart says that he can help Mathilde.

In reality, Lennart has no training as a psychiatrist. But privately, it’s mentioned that he’s been to so many psychiatrists in his life, he feels like he knows all the right lingo to say in a therapy session. Lennart’s lie to Mathilde leads to a comedic subplot where he starts giving her psychiatric “therapy.” Mathilde and Lennart become so attached to each other, Lennart practically acts like her uncle. Mathilde prefers to spend time with Lennart more than her father Markus.

The dark comedy of “Riders of Justice” is most prominent when it shows the unexpected and odd surrogate family that forms as a result of these four men’s vigilante goals. Markus appears to be the most cold and calculating of the four, but he’s like a ticking time bomb. As for the murder trial that star witness Eagle was going to testify in against his former gang cronies, the outcome of that trial is mentioned in the movie. This outcome is also a catalyst for much of the action in the story.

Some elements of “Riders of Justice” are very predictable, while others are not. Viewers will have to suspend disbelief at some of the shootout scenes, where police don’t show up when they would in real life. Markus, Otto, Lennart and Emmenthaler also don’t make any effort to hide or disguise their faces when they start killing people—and that carelessness doesn’t make sense when they spend so much time meticulously planning other aspects of their crimes.

These plot holes can be excused because the movie’s main attraction is to see how these three men came into Markus’ life and awakened something in him that makes him feel alive and purposeful again, for better or worse. All of the cast members do well in their roles, but Mikkelsen is the most riveting to watch because his Markus character doesn’t express his emotions easily, so his character is at times the most unpredictable.

“Riders of Justice” doesn’t glorify violence, nor does it make vigilantism look glamorous. Nielsen’s directing and screenwriting achieves a hard-to-balance dichotomy of juxtaposing Markus’ double life, with gritty assassination scenes followed by “wholesome” family scenes. The real story in “Riders of Justice” isn’t how many of the gang members are killed but what kind of emotional toll this revenge mission takes on the vigilantes who decided the only way to get justice is through murder.

Magnolia Pictures’ Magnet Releasing released “Riders of Justice” in New York City and Los Angeles on May 14, 2021. The movie’s release expanded to more U.S. cities and on digital and VOD on May 21, 2021. The movie was released in Denmark and Mexico in 2020.

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