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Review: Robert Eggers' 'The Northman' is 2+ hours of art-house savagery

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The film "The Northman" is a tale of Vikings and carnage. It stars a bulked-up Alexander Skarsgard, and critic Bob Mondello says with a $90 million budget, it marks a startling change of pace for its arthouse director.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: As the 10th-century Viking ship pulls into the muddy, desolate shore, young Amleth...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NORTHMAN")

OSCAR NOVAK: (As Young Amleth) He's here.

MONDELLO: ...Is thrilled.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NORTHMAN")

OSCAR: (As Young Amleth) Mother, father is here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) The king, milady, the king.

MONDELLO: The king is just as pleased, eager to take his young prince through a drug-fuelled rite of passage, preparing his ascent to the throne.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NORTHMAN")

ETHAN HAWKE: (As King Aurvandil War-Raven) How I've missed you, my son. One day, this kingdom will be yours.

MONDELLO: One day, but not this day. Uncle Fjolnir has designs on the throne and on the queen. As little Amleth catches snowflakes on his tongue, an arrow whizzes by, lodging itself in the king's chest and an unroyal uncle approaches, sword drawn.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NORTHMAN")

HAWKE: (As King Aurvandil War-Raven) Strike, brother, strike but know that bearing a stolen ring makes no half-breed a king.

MONDELLO: As Amleth runs away, he makes a vow.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NORTHMAN")

OSCAR: (As Young Amleth) I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjolnir.

MONDELLO: When Shakespeare adapted this same legend about a Scandinavian prince whose uncle kills his father and marries his mother, he took the H at the end of Amleth and put it at the front. He also gave the Prince Hamlet existential doubts and soliloquies about shuffling off this mortal coil. The movie's prince, by contrast, isn't much worried about being or not being. He grows up a man of action, of serious muscles and of few, if oft repeated, words...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NORTHMAN")

ALEXANDER SKARSGARD: (As Amleth) I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjolnir.

MONDELLO: Because what's a guy to do when there's something rotten in the pre-state of Denmark. Played by Alexander Skarsgard, Amleth is a bull of a man, neck bulging as he catches a spear in midair that's just missed his head and hurls it back at defenders of a town he's about to sack. He wears the head of a wolf and is animalistic, whether knocking heads together or hooking up with Olga, the film's witchy but practical Ophelia figure.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NORTHMAN")

ANYA TAYLOR-JOY: (As Olga of the Birch Forest) Your strength breaks men's bones. I have the cunning to break their minds.

MONDELLO: If this be madness, yet there is method in't. As echoes of Shakespeare pile up and Willem Dafoe's unlucky jester even gets a Yorick's skull moment, Olga centers Amleth, keeps him focused.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NORTHMAN")

SKARSGARD: (As Amleth) It's a nightmare.

TAYLOR-JOY: (As Olga of the Birch Forest) Then you must wake up.

MONDELLO: There's the rub. Awake, all is vengeance. To sleep, perchance to dream might well be worse. Director Robert Eggers makes "The Northman" a waking cinematic nightmare - mayhem filmed in breathtaking continuous shots, emotions pitched on the far side of sanity, supernatural elements as real to the characters as breathing.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NORTHMAN")

SKARSGARD: (As Amleth) For now I will haunt this farm like a hungry corpse returned from the grave.

MONDELLO: The director's visuals are also designed to haunt, including a fight to the death atop an erupting volcano, all in the service of a story far grander than his last film, the intimate black and white "The Lighthouse," which had just two men in a cramped interior. "The Northman" has hundreds of marauding warriors, Nicole Kidman as a supremely devious queen and Bjork haunting the rugged slopes of Iceland as a blind seeress.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NORTHMAN")

BJORK: (As Seeress) Even though your brother stole my eyes, I see you.

MONDELLO: Eggers has researched 10th-century Nordic life as few filmmakers before him, the way spirits and drug-fueled visions were accepted as part of the real world, the trance-like fury of berserker warriors. And that makes all of this play more authentically than you might expect and more fantastically, too, in ways that have everything to do with big-screen showmanship.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE NORTHMAN")

SKARSGARD: (As Amleth) I cannot escape my fate.

MONDELLO: Eggers makes "The Northman" as crafty as an art film, as brutal as a slasher flick - two-plus hours of arthouse savagery. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.

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