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Monday, May 16, 2022

‘The Northman’ – Brutal History

Ben Nietzel
Ben Nietzel works as the principal of Saints Mary and Mathias Catholic School. He also enjoys coaching Muskie football and reviewing movies.

Muscatine Living

“The Northman” is a revenge tale that follows a Viking warrior named Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) as he sets out to avenge his father, save his mother, and kill his Uncle Fjolner.

Pro – Visceral beauty

Director Robert Eggers has crafted an amazing looking film that literally transports the viewer into the last years of the Dark Ages in Northern Europe. The look and feel of the film is shockingly authentic. The world feels huge, and the small outposts of “civilization” feel small and fragile. “The Northman” has a stunning and haunting visual appeal. This is buoyed by an amazing cast who wonderfully melt into their roles. Every ounce of this film screams authenticity and theme.

Pro – Gratitude

Allegory is a favored tool of writers and directors to commentate on modern life through a more palatable medium. Other times, books and films can simply be a window into a human experience so foreign to the viewer it shocks them into a reevaluation of their own world.

“The Northman” is a gritty and fair look at the life and plight of humans 1,000 years in the past. Luxury was scarce and life was cheap. “The Northman,” perhaps unintentionally, is a damning commentary on modern annoyance with cell phones that don’t charge fast enough or cars that are not quite at a standard people thinks they deserve.

The film also places a mirror on modern notions of justice. It is all to easy to forget that, as species, human beings of every place are not that removed from slavery (of friend and foe), wonton butchery, widespread rape, and abject poverty as the standard rather than the exception. “The Northman” may not set out to suggest this, but its ability to transport the viewer back in time gives pause to consider how fortunate residents of the modern world and sensibilities are. Modern society might not always get it right, but it’s foolish to not recognize how vast the improvement is, especially for viewers fortunate enough to live in the Western world.

Con – Mixed signals

The biggest issue with “The Northman” is that the film both muddles expectation and the plot. “The Northman” (likely through the fault of the studio) implies it’s a epic tale of comeuppance and honor. It is not. It is purely a tale of naked, raw revenge. It’s a tale worth telling and exploring, but the mind shift might come too late for a viewer expecting something else after the amazing trailers. This is not an updated “300” with long boats and axes instead of phalanxes and spears.

Within the film, it seems to oscillate dreamily between gritty realism and Robert E. Howard fantasy. It’s never clear if the fantastical elements are real or imagined, and this can be a bit disorienting for the viewer. Perhaps that’s intentional in discussing a time where the absence of science likely made the supernatural feel possible at every turn.


“The Northman” is a masterpiece of look and design. It’s a visceral gut punch that harkens back to a violent and severe past. Regard for human life and dignity based primarily on one’s ability to enforce it, a fact that has fortunately changed much for the better. Contrary to marketing, “The Northman” is a personal tale of revenge, and the cost that paying off that debt can incur. Row down to Fridley Palms Theater and give this film a watch.

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