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The Northman's Ferocious Power 

click to enlarge When your bros break into the Capitol rotunda without you.

The Northman

When your bros break into the Capitol rotunda without you.

THE NORTHMAN. In hindsight, I should probably have been kinder to The Witch (2015). At the time, I damned it with faint praise, basically comparing it unfavorably to some of the cheekier arthouse horror movies of the moment. As I think I said then, this was due to shortsightedness on my part but also to the misbegotten marketing strategy for The Witch, touting as the new scariest movie of all time. To be fair, it is an ominous, often frightening examination of supernatural terror, but it is also much more than that.

Without any context for it, for one thing, it was easy to dismiss the movie's painstaking attention to period detail, down to the finer points of spoken language and the day-to-day tasks of carving a life from an unforgiving landscape. Simultaneously, I was too quick to gloss over the finely constructed, remarkably confident and complete design sensibility of the piece. In hindsight, it becomes clear The Witch marked the debut of an actual cinematic visionary and we are granted precious few of those these days.

The visionary in question is of course writer-director Robert Eggers, who, now with three features on his CV, has unknowingly shamed me for my tepid response to his debut. Maybe time has made me less cynical, more open-hearted; seems doubtful.

But I can now see The Witch as a remarkably accomplished, quietly assured (if imperfect) first salvo from an artist with an acutely attuned sense of aesthetics, a distinct set of skills and interests and a rare ability to control the totality of a movie production and emerge with work of singular vision. He also introduced us to Anya Taylor-Joy, who has proven herself one of the boldest, most skillful and most compelling actors of her generation (and possibly of the generation or two before).

Eggers' second feature, The Lighthouse (2019) helps illuminate the intentions of his debut, creating a continuum of existential dread, horrific intimacy and intricate connection of narrative to place that have now come to define his body of work. The Lighthouse, all shadows, wind and personal desolation shot in a claustrophobic aspect ratio and mesmerizing black and white, is a very different proposition altogether, but cements an intentionality and precision that have become trademarks of Eggers' cinema. It also, despite an even smaller setting and more constricted narrative, allows an expansion of his cinematic technique, his painterly compositions, often elliptical character arcs and close examination of humanity's torturous relationship with its environment.

All of which carries through in his latest, a folklorist's psychedelic freakout version of a Viking revenge story. The Northman (co-written with Sjón) is undeniably Eggers' biggest, most ambitious production to date, but is carried off with such deceptive ease and masterly craft (credit to his longtime director of photography Jarin Blaschke) that it submerges the viewer in its atmosphere, rather than allowing its tremendous style to become the primary point of focus. It's technique in service of impossibly detailed narrative.

Because the inciting incident comes as a bit of surprise, I'll not ruin it beyond saying certain violent events in a North Atlantic Viking kingdom send its crown prince, Amleth (Oskar Novak) into exile, beating oars against an unforgiving sea.

When we meet him again, years later, he has become a hulking, blood-bathed berserker, a bear-wolf against whom few, if any, can stand in single combat. Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård), having obscured his lineage, has lived entirely fueled by hatred and vengeance, awaiting the moment when fate will allow him to administer it. Decades on, that moment arrives. Concealing himself among slaves captured in a raid in the Land of the Rus, Amleth makes his way to the Icelandic stronghold of the traitor who created him and his fated journey. Along the way, he befriends Olga (Taylor-Joy), an equally fierce warrior, albeit one trained in the destruction of men's minds.

In terms of pure cinematic technique, The Northman rivals anything I have seen in years, full stop. Its visual palette astounds, transitioning with impossible aplomb from verdant riparian forests to volcanic hellscapes to the hallucinatory gates of the afterlife. It weds technique, high art and ferocious violence in an unholy, transcendently enjoyable matrimony, while remaining impossibly faithful to historical accuracy and its source texts. The sheer volume of research, the uncountable hours spent weaving and forging this thing boggle the mind, but the totality of its vision, the immersive and fundamental satisfaction of it, disallow distraction. It is a complete, revelatory, sometimes humorous saga unlike any other, an exploration of myth but also of an often misunderstood ancient culture that embraced reverence and violence, the natural world and humanity's attempted taming of it, in equal measure. R. 140M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.

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