When The Northman begins, Amleth - the Viking Prince who will soon consign his life to the pursuit of vengeance - is still a boy. His father, Ethan Hawke's stout King Aurvandill War-Raven, returns from conflicts abroad with a seeping injury, one that seems likely to expediate the guileless prince's path to the throne. When considering his child War-Raven lasers in on Amleth's innocence; he senses something pure and uncorrupted in this cossetted, wide-eyed adolescent. Traits, incidentally, that this King feels are incompatible with the brutal monarchy that War-Raven has upheld. Despite protestations from Nicole Kidman's Queen, the father and his son partake in a ceremony designed to hasten Amleth's creep into adulthood. It's a shamanic ritual, resided over by Willem Dafoe's court fool, in which the two royals strip naked, bray and fart like animals, then drink mead spiked with a hallucinogenic. This witchery allows the pair to grasp at ethereal, reality-defying, visions that position their family within a massive tree root that extends off into distant futures.
Immediately following this psychedelic service, War-Raven is set upon and killed. Amleth escapes but never recovers from this outrage. His identity and outlook are frozen in the moments that he watched, helpless, as his father was murdered and his mother was carried away as plunder. Amleth therefore never quite shakes off the spell that was cast over him in that smoke-choked hut. The animal aspect that was summoned is never corrected by a return to the patterns and rhythms of a courtly life. The oath he swears during his escape - to avenge his father and free his mother - becomes an all-consuming ideological fulcrum. A desire for correction now burns within Amleth. The emotion has swallowed him whole, feeding the slathering, amoral might that lurks within. It's obvious then that The Northman owes John Milius and Oliver Stone's Conan the Barbarian a massive structural debt. Writer-director Robert Eggers and co-writer Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson treat that 1982 sword and sorcery film as a blueprint, battering a Scandinavian legend until it pivots on similar beats. Flourishes and embellishments are applied to Milius' sacred text: so while Conan steals a bastard sword away from a trembling Atlantean mummy, in Amleth's tale the corpse actually rises, joining battle with its graverobber.
The years between Amleth's flight and an opportunity to enact his revenge are a blur of frenzied violence. The prince - now played by a strapping Alexander Skarsgård - is a mercenary working with a clan of Viking berserkers. Pointedly, Amleth is party to, but not directly involved in, a kind of casual atrocity that undermines the conceptual purity of his own personal quest. His band generates enmity on a tremendous scale, tearing children and babies away from their screaming mothers then burning them alive. Skarsgård communicates a sheepishness in these scenes; an understanding that he is a component in a machine that perpetuates the kind of misery that drives his own vendetta. Later when Amleth has lied his way into a position that allows a chance at retribution, real-life circumstances gnaw away at his fantasy. The Wagnerian torment he has given his life over to is repeatedly undermined. First by the diminished circumstances he finds his treacherous uncle in, later by the poison that drips from his own mother's mouth. Eggers and Sigurðsson never let us forget that, in his heart, Amleth is a thwarted child. Jealousy prickles when he sees his mother loving another son and he willingly suffers through months of slavery just to decode a familial affection that he himself has never experienced. The final act of The Northman sees Amleth sinking deeper and deeper into delusion as a response to the devastating truths that assault him. The form of the film twists and turns in sympathy, rejecting muddy historical reality in favour of supernatural reverie.