The American director Robert Eggers has had an auspicious early career. His first two movies were smash hits in the arthouse world: 2015’s The Witch, which launched the career of Anya Taylor-Joy, and 2019’s The Lighthouse, which starred Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. Both films were produced on small budgets by indie powerhouse A24, and both have already achieved a kind of cult status among horror buffs and cinephiles alike.

So when news broke that New Regency was offering the auteur director a budget of around $70 million for his third film — a Viking revenge...

The American director Robert Eggers has had an auspicious early career. His first two movies were smash hits in the arthouse world: 2015’s The Witch, which launched the career of Anya Taylor-Joy, and 2019’s The Lighthouse, which starred Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe. Both films were produced on small budgets by indie powerhouse A24, and both have already achieved a kind of cult status among horror buffs and cinephiles alike.

So when news broke that New Regency was offering the auteur director a budget of around $70 million for his third film — a Viking revenge epic starring Alexander Skarsgård, Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman — movie geeks went wild. Just not quite wild enough to buy actual tickets, apparently.

Co-written by Eggers and the Icelandic poet Sjón, The Northman adapts the age-old legend of medieval Scandinavian king Amleth. The fable dates to at least the twelfth century and was the chief inspiration behind Shakespeare’s Hamlet. You already get the gist — a young prince vows revenge after his father, the king, is murdered by his uncle. Yet despite its deeply conventional narrative, The Northman admits not a shred of familiarity, thanks to Eggers’s commanding vision. Instead, viewers are treated to a brawny and phantasmagoric saga unlike any sword-and-shield movie in recent memory.

Eggers is renowned for his commitment to historical authenticity. Through The Northman’s spectacular set design, we are transported to the striking and unfamiliar landscape of tenth-century Northern Europe and Iceland. In the span of its 137-minute run time, the plot pinballs between vulgar rituals, psychedelic visions and battle sequences, immersing us in the mythical mind and metaphysical experience of the ancient Vikings. So when man battles reanimated skeleton, over a sword that can be unsheathed only under moonlight, this otherworldly turn of events comes off as bizarrely plausible. Keeping pace with the action sometimes comes at the expense of narrative legibility. Unfamiliar with Nordic religious institutions and social proceedings? Too bad, keep up anyway. Moments of exhilarating bafflement ensue — we’re in over our heads but glad to be along for the ride. After all, as Eggers and Sjón remind us, the tenth-century Viking landscape was a freaky place for those living it as well. Reflecting on the possibility of a Christian invasion, one panicked Icelandic guard cries out, “their god is a corpse nailed to a tree!”

Skarsgård commits fully to the ferocity of the lead role, and his Prince Amleth can only be described as animalistic. After the character’s tragic backstory is delivered, the film leaps ahead several years to a marauding party of Vikings, among whom Amleth has been in hiding, running berserk through naive Russian settlements. But an encounter with a witch (played by Icelandic music legend Björk) reminds him of his childhood catastrophe and sets him on his mission: “I will avenge you father; I will save you mother; I will kill you Fjölnir!”

In both The Witch and The Lighthouse, Eggers’s dialogue is era-appropriate, and many complained that the antiquated monologues were hard to follow. Fortunately for viewers, The Northman’s screenplay replaces Old Norse with modern English. Unfortunately for them, it’s somewhat thin gruel, as far as conversation goes. Sure, “brevity is the soul of wit,” as Polonius reminded us. In Eggers’s Scandinavia they mostly just grunt. Dialogue is either hissed in covert whispers or bellowed in guttural roars. So it’s probably not the movie for date night. As much time as the camera lingers on a mostly naked, immaculately six-packed Skarsgård, he is more often than not covered in sweat, soil and blood. Then again, I guess it depends on your date.

Perhaps the film’s most impressive achievement is the cinematography by Jarin Blaschke. Every frame is dazzling. This movie is eye candy, and so are the mead-swilling actors and actresses. So for all of these merits, why such limited returns at the box office? The Northman has highlighted more than any recent movie that the market for these sorts of projects is rapidly shrinking. The mid-tier $70 million flick is increasingly rare. Anything more expensive and commercial would have snuffed out all of the directorial eccentricity that makes Eggers such a fascinating up-and-comer. Alternatively, Eggers could have released another shoestring indie darling, but only at the expense of The Northman’s shock-and-awe impressiveness.

It seems that every recent attempt to get both the Marvel geeks and the A24 hipsters into a single theater has failed. It is unlikely that production houses will continue trying. But if The Northman is the last of its kind — a mid-budget period epic with real artistic flair — at least we’re going out with a bang.

This article was originally published in The Spectator’s July 2022 World edition.