THE NORTHMAN (2022)

April 21, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. After two incredible arthouse films that earned the label “visionary filmmaker” for Robert Eggers, some would not have been surprised to find him cashing in on a huge payday for the next colossal superhero movie. But for those of us who adore and respect him for THE WITCH (2015) and THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019), we knew Mr. Eggers was not the comic book type. Instead, he secured a hefty budget (still less than $100 million) and with his co-writer, Icelandic author Sjon (writer of last year’s mesmerizing LAMB), created the most epic Viking movie to date … while firmly maintaining his artsy stylings.

Every now and then a movie comes along and I must accept that my words will fall short; that I won’t be able to do justice to what I’ve experienced on screen. This is certainly one of those times. Based on the same Scandinavian folk tale that inspired Shakespeare to pen “Hamlet”, this Eggers film is not just meticulously researched, it also pulls us right in so that we slosh through the mud and muck. We shiver from the cold. We feel the wind and the brutality of the violence. We live the harsh elements of Viking life.

The film opens in the year 895 AD as young Prince Amleth welcomes home his battle-weary father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). Not long after jester Heimer the Fool (Willem Dafoe) jokes about the Queen and the King’s brother, the boy witnesses his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang, the excellent “Dracula” TV mini-series, 2020) strike dead the king. Amleth escapes, pledging to avenge his father’s murder and the kidnapping of his mother, Queen Gudrun (Oscar winner Nicole Kidman). Flash forward twenty years and Amleth has become a behemoth of a man played by Alexander Skarsgard (Eric Northman in “True Blood”), who lives, fights, and kills alongside violent 10th century Vikings. Amleth is a hulking beast unmatched in battle, yet one who never unnecessarily harms women or children.

His revenge plan leads him to the farming village where his mother and Uncle Fjolnir now live as wife and husband, an arrangement Amleth is certain she adheres to for her own safety and that of her new son. Bjork, in her first big screen role since DANCER IN THE DARK (2000), appears as the seeress who knows Amleth’s destiny. It’s here where Amleth meets Olga “of the Birch Forest” (Anya Taylor-Joy) and reveals his plan to her. Olga describes her supernatural abilities as breaking men’s minds in contrast to his breaking their bones. The two are quite the match.

Eggers stages a stunning final showdown with a naked sword fight atop a burning volcano to ensure we aren’t subjected to an ending that falls short. The visceral savagery on the screen is somehow both brutal and beautiful. This is epic cinematic brilliance from Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who treat us to numerous long takes in harsh weather and discomforting action. This is 136 minutes featuring some of cinemas best faces, while also proving that visionary is simply not a strong enough word to describe director Robert Eggers.

Opening in theaters on April 22, 2022

WATCH THE TRAILER


THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019)

October 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. The opening sequence plays like something from 1920’s era cinema. The chug-chug-chug of a boat slamming against the waves of an angry sea while birds flap and chirp alongside. We hear the wind and “feel” the severe ocean spray. Several minutes elapse before any word is spoken. Immediately noticeable is the nearly square aspect ratio … the rarely (these days) seen 1.19:1 frame, making the black and white images appear both surreal and ominous.

All of the above makes perfect sense when we realize this is writer-director Robert Eggers’ first feature film since his 2015 indie horror gem THE WITCH won dozens of festival awards. Mr. Eggers obviously has his own vision for projects, and his approach borders on experimental, eschewing conventional. He co-wrote this script with his brother Max, and evidently much was drawn from the actual journals of lighthouse keepers … something that is evident in the vocabulary and the effects of solitude.

4-time Oscar nominee Willem Dafoe stars alongside Robert Pattinson as the two men charged with a 4 week assignment of tending to a lighthouse. The film is set in 1890, and Dafoe plays Thomas Wake, the epitome of a salty old sea dog, replete with bad leg, hardcore Atlantic accent, and upside down pipe. Pattinson is Ephraim Winslow, the assistant Wickie, who faces non-stop demands from Wake, and initially maintains a quietness as he goes about his duties … what Wake calls the ‘doldrums.’ We learn little about either man’s past. For Wake, other than knowing his previous assistant went mad, the clue is when he mentions “13 Christmases spent at sea” costing him a family. For Ephraim, when Wake asks, “Tell me what’s a timberman want with being a Wickie?” we get some insight into Ephraim’s desired future.

Eggers has delivered the anti-buddy movie. It’s a bleak, slow-motion race to insanity caused by being isolated with only one other person … a person you aren’t fond of. Only this is not a director or a film content with showing two men stuck on a storm-battered rock, as they slip towards insanity. No, we viewers are forced to experience some of these same feelings – how much of what we see is actually happening? It’s mesmerizing and hypnotic, and the above-mentioned narrow screen aspect purposefully emphasizes the sense of confinement and claustrophobia.

With no color and only a couple of characters … OK, 3 if you count the mermaid …OK, 4 if you count the seagull … the film still manages to pound us with sensory overload. We can barely process all we are seeing, despite relatively minimal ‘typical’ action. The black and white images are mostly just various shades of gray, and sunshine is non-existent.  Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke (THE WITCH) embraces the dreariness by allowing the fog, lanterns, candles, wind, rain, and harsh elements to become characters unto themselves. However, nothing is in sync with our two leads. Composer Mark Korven fills the many lapses in dialogue with sounds and tones we haven’t heard before, yet they fit perfectly here. This is also quite likely the first film to utilize farts and foghorns in harmony.

Director Eggers filmed this on Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia, and the extreme weather and less-than-welcoming terrain create quite the visuals – as do the faces of our two lead actors. Dafoe may never have chewed scenery so delightfully as he does here, and Pattinson starts slowly before delivering his best work – including a ferocious rant that is fascinating to watch and contrast to his character’s first meal with Dafoe. Is this a horror film? A fantasy? Macabre comedy? There is simply no way to describe this other than bizarre. It’s truly miserable cinema, and I loved every minute of it.

watch the trailer: