The Best Movies of the Year: Magic, Psychedelia, and Psychosis in The Northman

Movies Features best of 2022
The Best Movies of the Year: Magic, Psychedelia, and Psychosis in The Northman

As 2022 wraps up, Paste’s film team highlights their individual choices for Best Movie of the Year by writing about what makes each one so special to them.

The Northman is my favorite movie of the year because—like The Green Knight before it—the film calls to a pre-Shakespearean literary artistic tradition and adapts it with modern film technique, all without attempting be overtly modern in its sensibilities. As an adaptation of one of the stories which inspired Hamlet, it’s invoking seminal work while following within an artistic continuity. It is the world serpent eating its tail. Like The Green Knight as well as filmmaker Robert Eggers’ other films (The Witch, The Lighthouse), The Northman is interested in the ambiguities of magic: In the sacred and profane, in tricks of individual and group psychosis mixed with psychedelia and contrasted with a grounded “real world,” in bringing our eyes to touch gods and demons.

The Northman is a film about lies and trances, rites and rages. Young Amleth (Oscar Novak) follows his father into a temple where the court fool (Willem Dafoe) is revealed as his shaman. In this coming-of-age ritual, they bark and howl like dogs, and imbibe a psychedelic mead leading them to float above their seated bodies. King Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) removes his bandage to reveal a wound he took in battle; Amleth reaches to touch it and sees a portal to a star-and-snow-filled void where Aurvandil’s heart act as the roots of a mystical family tree—arteries as branches, with the bodies of their ancestors hanging as fruit. They awaken the next day and are attacked leaving the temple as part of a coup. Aurvandil’s half-brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang) seizes the throne and Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman).

As an adult, wearing an animal pelt, Amleth (Alexander Skarsgard) works himself into a fury of bloodlust with the other berserkers on the night before a raid. They’re led in this ritual by a bulking bearded man, much like a “he-witch” he encounters later. After completing the raid, sacking the village and burning alive the people they deem unworthy of slavery, he rests. He wakes in the night, wanders into a ruined temple and is warned of the future by a dark spirit, Bjork as a ghost of a witch. She’s been blinded by Amleth’s countrymen—her eyes obscured by hanging shells, a haunting reminder of the indignity of the massacre—and tells Amleth about his future: Valhalla awaits him…after the vengeance he’ll take on the uncle that killed his father and stole his kingdom, and that a Maiden-king will result from his actions.

Amleth brands his own body to disguise himself as a slave, and soon finds himself in his uncle’s court in Iceland, no longer situated in the kingdom of his youth. A wolf leads him to see a he-witch beneath a mountain who, holding the head of Heimir the fool, channels prophecy from beyond the grave. He bequeaths Amleth the undead blade, Draugr, which he must retrieve from the undead king, the Mound Dweller. It’s a visceral brawl, methodical and quick in equal measure, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only Skyrim player reminded of fighting draugrs in their tombs. Once Amleth’s felled the fallen warrior, he looks back at the throne to see the Mound Dweller in his seat, with Draugr across his lap, and Amleth himself staring at the mummified corpse. After defeating him, it appears it was all a mirage, a test of mind and spirit rather than mere physical power. Was the fight imagined? Did it take place in his mind as he reached out for the sword? One thing for certain—verified by the attempts of Fjölnir’s men to use it—is that Draugr only works in moonlight or at the Gates of Hel, as Heimir and the he-witch promised.

Amleth’s romance with Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), the beautiful Slavic captive from the destroyed village, leads to a vengeance partnership, influenced by her own utility with earthen magic. When they first met, she said she had the cunning to break men’s minds; as they plan to begin Fjölnir’s nightmare, Olga puts a mushroom in Amleth’s hand, foretelling the use of a traditional and tangible brand of witchcraft: Poison. Later, when they’re on a boat to leave the kingdom, memory of prophecy—and a magical vision of his father’s heart-ancestry tree assuring him that Olga is carrying his children—draws Amleth back to his revenge. (He’s a bit of a dolt, as his venom-spewing, truth-telling mother mentioned some scenes earlier.) In response, Olga demonstrates further magic for the ship’s crew and the audience. Mourning the future she might have had with the man she’d come to love, she calls the ocean breeze to move her ship along. She chants in anguish what sounds like a curse and raises her arms. Winds fill the sails.

Amleth dies on a volcano, at “The Gates of Hel,” surrounded by a “lake of fire,” fulfilling all that had been foretold. He has a naked swordfight on a volcano with his uncle after killing his mother and his youngest half-brother in a combination of self-defense and accident (and promising, faithfully, that they will all meet again in the halls of the Allfather). This is the mother he’d come all this way to save, and a brother he’d saved not long before. The fight on the volcano is a dark and dramatic spectacle, an engaging vision of grief, brutality and the folly of vengeance.

In the end, Amleth is carried to Valhalla on the back of a Valkyrie’s flying steed. Is this the fantasy of a dying man leaving the world, or the mythical culmination of a physical and spiritual adventure? It’s both. It is the intentional ambiguity of putting the real and surreal, or natural and supernatural, on equivalent planes in a piece of modern media which mostly considers itself ordered according to post-Enlightenment ideals of logic and reason. While the studio investing nearly $100 million certainly would have liked global resonance, this was a film made by an American director facing an American audience within a culture that has the ability to subsume and calcify even as it diversifies. This can limit audience interpretation of even the most explicit or intentional artistic statements. Our society is not without spiritualism—Christianity is everywhere, other religions are prevalent if not as prominent, and animistic traditions from here and across the world live on—and we’re also not without magical thinking. Any manner of public discourse around issues of economy, geopolitics or climate change will readily reveal that.

Rather, though, these things are usually displayed to us as disparate, rather than intersecting or interlocking, places of existence. While it’s not without surprise or revelation, The Northman’s plot is relatively straightforward. Yet we—or I—have gotten so used to a dichotomy where speculation in film is increasingly the purview of comic book movies on one hand and, on the other, the use of the supernatural is otherwise frequently a play on psychology. In The Northman, we can feel the literary heritage of Shakespeare: It feels like an earnest interpretation of the Dark Ages, translated to our time, made by someone who lives in our time, trying to relate to how people thought and felt then. It’s so basic yet feels so profound.

The fantasy of The Northman is taking old myths, old religious belief systems, and having thier expressions on the material, real-feeling world come across clearly, but in hidden, lonely moments with few witnesses for the characters. The questions of whether magic is real, whether the gods are real, whether prophecy and fate are real, never occur to the characters as they do the audience. In part, we’re informed by Eggers’ use of visual metaphor to illustrate themes while questioning the sanity of a protagonist. But the characters know it all to be true. Their faith in their gods and in the connection between nature and the supernatural guide them along paths to destruction and salvation. That these things happen obscured in darkness, in the wee hours, or after imbibing and chanting, doesn’t make them less real but more—the ritual begets the experience, death invites the enchantress, her prophecy reveals a path ending in a ride to Valhalla.

Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.

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