Being reel: ‘The Northman’ — super gory but lacking in story

A woman with long blonde hair is chained in front of a blonde, bearded man. They are outside, surrounded by mountains.
(Bella Pettengill • The Student Life)

The saying “revenge is a dish best served cold” usually doesn’t refer to the physical temperature of an act of vengeance. But Robert Eggers’ “The Northman” attempts to adapt Hamlet into the setting of 10th century Iceland, where revenge takes place in the snow and in the worst of conditions. 

The only problem: the revenge is flimsy, with the film relying on gratuitous violence and overly expository writing to carry the story.

A good revenge movie should have several things: characters you actually get to sit with and know, some sort of internal struggle that develops early in the film and gradually becomes more complicated, as well as violence — but violence motivated by difficult decision making and real pain.

Something that “The Northman” did not offer me as a viewer was the opportunity to experience the pain of any of the main characters. The main character, Amleth, is only on screen for twenty minutes as a young child before the motivation for his revenge for the next two hours of the movie becomes apparent. The pain that the young Amleth is supposed to feel did not have the setup it deserved, especially since the context for the event is revealed just half an hour before the movie ends. This revenge had no mystery to it — it was just a search for a man that ended too quickly with a climax that took too long to unfold.

And, even if the movie was re-written so that its 137 minute runtime was more engaging, it still used violence to a gratuitous degree. Now don’t get me wrong, my favorite revenge movies (“The Vengeance Trilogy” by Park Chan-wook) are incredibly gory and violent. Some parts of those movies are damn near unwatchable. What separates “The Northman” from the likes of “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance” or “Old Boy” is the politics behind the immense violence. “The Northman” takes much of its political ethos from the fact that it is a period piece. Modern mythologies of Nordic countries in the 10th century understand Vikings as absolutely barbaric. The justification for their barbarism is tautological: they’re from the 10th century.

In a way, one can understand this circular reasoning as almost pseudo-progressive — in that it is honest about how older European societies were absolutely brutal and grotesque. It resembles a concept of savagery that has been attached and attributed in racist ways to Indigenous societies in Asia, Africa and the Americas. But, if we’re being honest with ourselves, Eggers is not particularly interested in reversing any historical roles. The frequent disembowelings and decapitations occur simply because they are shocking to the viewer.

Throughout watching the film, I could not help but think about how I’d much rather be watching Park Chan-wook’s trilogy. In those movies, we see the pain that the characters experience and that a lot of their pain can be mapped onto larger systemic issues that comment on the politics of South Korea. The viewer, then, understands the violence to be a reaction to being wronged. While violence (and brutal violence at that) is perhaps not the best course of action, it can be justified by the magnitude of the being wronged. 

In “The Northman,” it is hard to feel bad for Amleth because we really do not know much about him as a person with emotions. The violence he commits feels wrong because he does not feel that it is wrong. The sadness he feels is performed because the “subversive” plot points are half-baked. They taunt the audience with things like incest instead of unpacking and showing us Amleth’s childhood.

This is not to say that all revenge movies need to be like biopics, in that they show every trauma a character has since their birth. A revenge movie should be simple. “The Northman” expects viewers to know mythology (I had no idea about the pegasus flying up to Valhalla before I watched the film) and quickly grasp the evil characters who get introduced at the start of the film.

I cringed at the violence, and laughed at the film more often than feeling emotions like sadness or disdain. This movie falls very easily under the “dudes rock” genre — in that it plays to everything someone might want out of a violent action film. It has sex, it has sexy people, it has violence and it has funny accents. What that incredible mix of things lacks, unfortunately, is depth. 

As soon as the movie ended, I felt overwhelmed, but not as though I had learned something about the human condition. The beautiful thing about a revenge movie is that it keeps revenge as an ambiguous thing to desire, because there is so much violent fallout. What “The Northman” succeeded in doing, however, was convincing me that revenge is stupid. Maybe that’s a good thing, but it is certainly not what I wanted.

Adam Osman-Krinsky PO ’25 is from New York City. He loves movies and logs all his most recent watches on his letterboxd @Adam0k and is currently looking for a new alter ego.

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