Robert Eggers is one of my favorite working directors and who I believe to be a pillar of the horror movie renaissance we’ve seen this past decade. His first film The Witch, or The VVitch like it says on the poster, is a slow burn nightmare set in America’s colonial period and stands out due to its staunch attention to historical accuracy in the dialogue, something that would become one of Egger’s defining characteristics. The film is definitely for the patient, and while I do think has secured a defining place in modern horror, his following film, The Lighthouse, is nothing short of a masterpiece in my opinion. Powerfully atmospheric, intently researched and incredibly entertaining, this film solidified Eggers as a powerhouse director for me, being my 2nd favorite film of 2019 right behind Parasite. It was also the very first film I made a cocktail for The Martini Shot! Because of this film, Eggers’ next piece of work automatically became my most anticipated film of the year. Now armed with a big, notable studio behind him and much larger budget, it seems like all the cards are in place to make Eggers a staple name in Hollywood.
If you are not super familiar with Egger’s work or have been put off by auteur, aggressively historical style, I’m happy to say that The Northman is perhaps his most accessible film to date, aiming for a much more straightforward tale of revenge that shouldn’t really leave you confused over what you just saw. While this is great for modern audiences, as a follow-up to a film like The Lighthouse, I can’t help but feel like this was a minor step-back. Not to say this isn’t a good film because it most certainly is, but it’s hard to ignore that this film lacks some of the narrative complexity that made his previous films stand out so strongly amongst the pack.
Starting out in the good ol’ year of 895 A.D., a young prince by the name of Amleth witnesses his father’s murder and his mother’s kidnapping at the hands of his traitourous uncle, Fjölnir. Amleth escapes into the sea, and years later he becomes a brutal berserker in a band of vikings. After a casual evening of village burning he encounters Seeress that foretells that Amleth will take revenge on Fjölnir, avenging his father and rescuing his mother. Joining forces with a witch named Olga, the two sneak their way into Fjölnir’s farm under the guise of slaves, and begin to enact Amleth’s life long quest to see Fjölnir murdered.
What does remain consistent across all of Egger’s work, including this one, is his unwillingness to shy away from making the dialogue as accurate to the time period as possible. With The Witch and The Lighthouse, many felt alienated by the fact that the dialogue wasn’t very easy to understand, and subtitles were heavily required to figure out what the hell was even going on. They’ve never been a huge problem for me as I think if you’re paying attention you can latch onto context through how they are talking rather than what they are saying, but The Northman seems to find a sweet spot between accuracy and accessibility. It doesn’t completely spoon-feed you on the dialogue, but I did find it easier to rely on spoken word this time around compared to his past films.
Another cinematic element paired with Eggers is his crafting of atmosphere with cinematography, sound design, and musical score. Shot on location in the rolling hills of Ireland, the film is undeniably gorgeous and sprawling. This is certainly Egger’s most grandiose film yet, even though it does take a noticeably contained approach to most of the story. The proof of his big money backing is certainly there, with a powerfully booming score to compliment the sprawling landscapes that you’d probably find digitally created if this was any other blockbuster. Eggers’ heavy use of natural light returns once again to further give the film a striking authenticity that only painstaking preparation can deliver.
Entombed in this gorgeous film is also enthralling performances by the entire cast. Alexander Skarsgård as Amleth is an absolute animal here, driven by a primal lust for revenge in a fairly physical role that sees him climb walls, hack limbs and beat faces in. Anya-Taylor Joy also does a great job as Amleth’s supernaturally powered muse, Olga, bringing intelligence and guidance to Amleth’s plan for revenge. Rounding out the cast is minor but solid performances from Ethan Hawke, Willem DaFoe and even Björk help drive the narrative’s central ideas and aesthetic, along with Nicole Kidman delivering a powerfully haunting monologue later in the film in one of the most spine-tingling roles I’ve ever seen her in.
So with all this praise, why does this film fall a bit short for me? Well, like I said before, Eggers had a huge hurdle to overcome if he was hoping to top The Lighthouse, and truthfully this film just didn’t impact me in the same way his previous films did. The story is fairly straightforward and doesn’t seem to have the same intriguing subtext as his past films, and I think a lot of that came down to studio interference. Eggers has already come out and said that the film would have had a more artsy approach, but the studio pushed back to make it accessible for general audiences. The middle ground he reached certainly isn’t terrible, it just feels a bit more one note. The story has a few surprises here and there, but if you have even a remote sense of the story of Hamlet, you’ll probably sense a bit of familiarity here. The thing is, I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with it being a straightforward film about one guy trying to kill another guy, but the violence here does leave a lot to be desired. We do get a few beheadings here and there and one instance of grotesque body manipulation, but a lot of kills happen either off camera or shrouded in darkness. When we do witness on-screen violence, many of the hits tend to lack satisfying impact and have a surprising lack of gore. With a film so focused on the brutality of its lead character, I would’ve liked to see the film go all in with its gore.
The best way I guess I can describe this film is as a disappointing success. It’s a solid film with gorgeous visuals and engaging performances, but I know Eggers had a better film in here somewhere more in-line with his past work. I can at least say comfortably that more audiences may find themselves drawn to this film, which in the end is a win for independent filmmakers everywhere. From the sound of it though, this may be the last time Eggers sacrifices his creative vision to a big studio, so I can only hope that this film gives him the success he needs to continue to make the movies he wants to make.
Gates of Valhalla
There’s a lot we don’t fully understand about Viking culture, but one thing I think we can all agree upon is that they enjoyed a good drink(s). Whether it be mead, grog or cider, Vikings are commonly seen with a big ol’ mug of libations in one hand and a battle ax in the other. When coming up with this cocktail, I didn’t want to go entirely authentic and try to replicate a drink they might have had in the past. Instead I wanted to take some of the flavors commonly associated with Vikings to turn it into a modernized, approachable drink that I think a lot of people will enjoy.
This brings me to the Gates of Valhalla, my spin on a Viking sour that uses two key ingredients: mead and apples. Mead is one of the oldest examples of historic alcoholic concoctions, being a fermented blend of water and honey. It was sort of a special occasion drink, or reserved for royalty. Apples, on the other hand, were not only an important part of Viking diets, but their religion as well. Idun is a Nordic goddess associated with youth, spring and…apples! Her particular breed of apples were said to hold the power of eternal youthfulness and would be eaten by the gods when they grew too old. So, I’ve decided to combine mead with apple brandy to create a modern spin on Viking flavors. I’ve also decided to base the build off of a traditional sour, because why not. They are some of the best types of cocktails out there, and the inclusion of the egg white makes this drink all the better for it.
- 1.5oz mead
- 1.5oz apple brandy
- 1/2oz honey
- 1oz lemon juice
- 1 egg white
- Garnish: Mint sprig
- Add all ingredients to a shaker and shake vigorously without ice for about 20 seconds.
- Add ice to the shaker and shake to chill.
- Strain into chilled coupe glass.
- Garnish with mint sprig.