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Review: Alexander Skarsgard goes for broke in 'The Northman,' but Robert Eggers' latest left me cold

There's more to admire in "The Northman" than absolutely love and get close to. But if you love the filmmaking style of Eggers, this one will please you.
Credit: Focus Features

ST. LOUIS — Violence doesn't mean much without a vow attached to it. A barbaric action without a soul. That's something Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) lives and dies by; a former prince who found his life turned upside down after seeing his heroic father (Ethan Hawke) murdered and his beloved mother (Nicole Kidman) kidnapped right before his eyes. Ever changed by vengeance, Amleth's goals are highly personal and ever so simple: save his mother, kill his uncle (Claes Bang), and avenge his father.

If there's one thing Robert Eggers' latest maniac tale thrives on, it's an isolated and adrift emotional tone. He only makes movies one way and it's definitely not the standard studio method.

As we see Amleth transform instantly from innocent young prince to a Viking killing machine, the emotional core of the story moves further away and all the individual seasoning techniques — the wild and vivid waywardness of the plot, the overbearing score and testosterone-fueled violence — keep the viewer invested up until the bloody and worth it finale.

What would I compare this to? Picture last year's "The Green Knight" and swap out Dev Patel for Skarsgard, who goes for broke here as the bulldozing killing machine. Without much dialogue and plenty of hunched over brooding, the "True Blood" actor finally gets a role that he can shape into something his own. He disappears into the role, becoming the maniac that Eggers' film needed. It's the kind of performance that doesn't carry much depth but lots of dark energy.

The supporting cast is more hit or miss. How many powerful mothers can Kidman play before it gets tiring? This role suits her and also doesn't do much for the Australian actress at the same time. Anya Taylor-Joy fares much better, per usual, as the powerful woman who maintains Amleth's ear and steers his revenge. As she did in last year's "Last Night in Soho" and countless films before it, Taylor-Joy haunts you (and Skarsgard) with her eyes and then her voice topples everyone in the theater over. There's something infinitely cunning about her acting ability.

Hawke and Bang perform the tasks of their respective roles without standing out much. Willem Dafoe falls into that group as well, but he always churns out more with a small part than most actors. Playing the witch-like soul who binds Amleth and his father together in a ritual before the tragic heel turn of the movie, Dafoe is downright creepy.

"The Northman'' creeps towards its bombastic finale, dropping any worries about pacing or structure in a third act that becomes tiring instead of gratifying. For all its gorgeous cinematography and ferocious lead performance, Eggers' film didn't resonate with me after I left the theater. I never felt pulled into the orbit of Amleth's revenge close enough to really empathize with his plight.

There's a rapid disconnect in Eggers and Sjon's screenplay. Perhaps, if they had shown the audience more of his transformation from innocent prince to unstoppable warrior, the layers and depth would have stuck out more. Instead, I was overwhelmed and intrigued by the visuals and sound, and burdened with deciphering what I had just witnessed.

Here's the thing. There's more to admire in "The Northman" than absolutely love and get close to. As wacky and all over the place that "Everything Everywhere All the Time" could be, it had a heartfelt underbelly that kept you rooting for Michelle Yeoh's unlikely heroine amid the table-turning plot.

Here, you want to see Skarsgard get his revenge but feel more battle torn by the end. That's the only way Robert Eggers makes movies and I respect that, even if it's not particularly my speed.

   

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