[CAUTION: There are some very general, spoiler-ish observations in this review that concern its closing scenes and the relationship between those scenes and the endings of Robert Eggers’ previous films The Witch and The Lighthouse.]

It’s kind of amazing how many films I’ve seen built upon the Inigo Montoya mantra. (Let’s say it together: “You killed my father. Prepare to die.“) It’s even more amazing how fundamental that storyline is, considering the fact that I have never met a single human being whose father has been murdered by a traitorous acquaintance. Nor have I ever met anyone who had an opportunity to go on a revenge quest.

And yet, just this morning, in conversation with a wise counselor, what was I wrestling with? I was tending to some wounds that I suffered as a young boy during a season of my father’s unemployment. At the time, I believed — passionately — that teachers and school administrators had wickedly conspired against him top end his job as a teacher. I remember feelings of rage, helplessness, and humiliation over the idea that anyone could take power away from my parents in ways that would make them suffer hardship.

That was only the beginning. There was a lot that I know now that I did not understand then. I had a lot of growing up to do.

Young Amleth flees the scene of violence that will scar him for life. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

Thus, even though I am weary of revenge narratives, I feel some measure of understanding and sympathy for the deeply wounded young hero of Robert Eggers’s new film The Northman. He too, as a young boy, witnesses his father “removal” from a place of power and influence. He too suffers emotional trauma and lets his fury harden into resentment that becomes a controlling factor in his life.

And he too has a lot to learn in the process of growing up.

But is he willing to learn?

Revenge is foolishness. But that doesn’t mean that stories about it are worthless. Sure, there is an epidemic in American entertainment of stories that glorify revenge — and that’s a toxic trend. But tales of vengeance can follow a righteously angry hero to so many possible conclusions: not only a violent reckoning or ruin, but also grace, forgiveness, reconciliation.

I love Lee Isaac Chung’s film Munyurangabo, which I saw a whole decade before he made the Oscar-winning Minari. It’s a powerful story of a revenge quest that leads its angry and heartbroken antihero to a surprising turn. It’s a surprising story that finds hope at the end of a journey that began in trauma and wrath.

Such stories are very rare throughout human history. But even if revenge tales end in the achievement of violence, they can become meaningful tragedies. In choosing violence over long-suffering and love, an antihero can illustrate the wages of sin and provide us with a cautionary tale. Consider Hamlet: the choice to answer killing with killing leads to greater consequences for everyone.

I’ve always found the prevalence of such violence in mythology interesting — Celtic tales, Greek myths, whatever the origin — for how it illustrates the values and beliefs of particular peoples, places, and times. I first learned about the Norse god Vidar, also known as “The Silent God” and “the God of Revenge,” while paying very little attention during a boring college class on mythology. You want Vidar on your side if you’re on a revenge quest. After all, according to his origin story, Vidar knows the territory: Wreaking vengeance, he tore apart Fenrir, the wolf who had killed his own literal god-father: Odin.

But why is Vidar described as a god of silence and revenge? The combination struck me as curious. Was Vidar silent because silence is an essential talent for someone who is determined to sneak up on a dangerous tyrant and kill him? That makes sense — especially if the villain might be anticipating such retaliation. Could it also be that a god of revenge is violent precisely because he is silent about his anger?

Bottle up hard feelings and you’ll end up with a volcanic eruption. That’s some heavy wisdom — I’ve learned it from watching others in my family and community. I’ve learned it in my own experience.

Nevertheless, I have no doubt that contemporary revenge narratives influence a culture that has such a huge appetite for them. The increasing violence in American culture wars seems to me to be influenced by these stories. Make an audience angry enough, and they will cheer for all manner of violence. And that includes Christian audiences, as evidenced by the popularity of Braveheart among evangelical Christians, and their increasing support for violent uprisings against their culture-war enemies (even though such uprisings are obviously contrary to Jesus’s own teachings).

“My name is Amleth. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

So, I had good reason to approach Eggers’s new movie with skepticism. Reading about the basic narrative arc of The Northman, I became nervous that this might become just a fancier, more enthralling version of the kind of narrative that Quentin Tarantino consistently serves up: a lurid feast appealing to an audience’s bloodlust.

And, even more worrying than that — a Nordic revenge story? Right now? A story about clans of white people warring like animals in an endless cycle of violence and retaliation… making speeches about defending their bloodlines? Doesn’t that sound like the glorification of what’s going on all around us in the world right now and threatening not only our hopes for peace and justice but even our hopes of an inhabitable planet for future generations?

On the other hand, my history with Robert Eggers’s filmography so far gave me some measure of optimism.

I admire his two previous films The Witch (2015) and The Lighthouse (2020). Both tell stories of characters who remove themselves from the “trouble” of society (as if that will help). The efforts of those characters fail — as they distance themselves from some sources of trouble, they learn the hard way that they have brought plenty of trouble with them into their isolation. Now, suffering in remote places, they have no community to rely on for help. Even more troubling, both films depict their doomed protagonists devolving into a kind of ecstatic madness, a victory that I don’t believe audiences are meant to believe in or celebrate. I think we’re supposed to recoil at their choices and at the frightful consequences. I interpret both as cautionary tales — or, better, cautionary nightmares — about how our impulses can lead us straight to hell. And I think we are shown that, just the Satan of Milton’s Paradise Lost determines to “make a heaven of hell,” so these characters fail to discern the gravity of their error, thinking they have somehow triumphed.

What’s more, I think Eggers’s filmmaking powers are formidable. While both stories strike me as meaningful and worth studying, The Witch and The Lighthouse also look and sound extraordinary, their exquisite aesthetics conjuring a powerful sense of spiritual darkness, their scripts composed with a richly literary complexity, the lines delivered by actors who have mastered difficult dialects.

So… which is it?

Is The Northman a cautionary tale? A corrective to vengeful impulses?

Or is it just another Braveheart, justifying vengeful violence in the name of some kind of god, throwing fuel on the fire of the violent fantasies of the “culture warriors” who threaten democracy?

Prediction: The Northman will inspire trendy new headgear. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

As it turns out, both my fears and my second-guessing of this film were well founded.

For many moviegoers — perhaps most — The Northman will play like a darker, bloodier version of Gladiator, in which the audience roots for a suffering hero. He never quite says it, but the mantra is there all the same. He might have said “My name is Prince Amleth. You, Fjölnir The Brotherless, killed my father, King Aruvandil War-Raven. Prepare to die.” Instead, he says, “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjolnir.

We watch Amleth (Alexander Skarsgård) gird up his loins and sharpen his lances to carry out violent vengeance against a tyrant (Claes Bang) who took the throne of his father (Ethan Hawke) by treachery, and also made the queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) his own by force.

Action Amleth! [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

Sound awfully familiar? It should.

The Northman is basically the ur-Hamlet, a version of classic story that pre-dates any of Shakespeare’s concerns about Ophelia or the role of the Players in “catching the conscience of the king.” This is the most fundamental of revenge quests. This Amleth doesn’t care about wordplay. He devotes his life to the long game of stealth and vengeance, his intent easy readable in the creases of his forehead and the scowl of his posture. Amleth gets a decade-long training in Viking masculinity, complete with fireside dances and chants, hand-to-hand combat, costumes of animal skins, communion with wolves and with witchcraft (including a Seeress played by none other than the great sorceress of pop music: Bjork!), and with a sort of Crossfit program that involves a lot of rowing. It’s easy to root for him… at first.

But there is a strange contradiction at the movie’s heart — manifested in the character of Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy). Amleth and Olga form a tenuous bond of mutual support as they earn their way up the chain of slavery to Fjölnir The Brotherless, until they find themselves in Iceland — Fjölnir has been driven out of his own kingdom and forced to settle elsewhere — at the edge of Fjölnir’s inner circle and family.

Olga the Longsuffering and Wise. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

When they get there, Amleth is troubled to discover that the story he has told himself throughout his life has been a false narrative. Fake News. Those events that traumatized him in childhood, they weren’t as simple as he’d imagined. It wasn’t just a case of the Evil World committing sins against a Saint.

It’s always more complicated than that. To learn such lessons is fundamental to the work of Growing Up.

Olga, the tender and beautiful slave who sees Amleth’s hardship so clearly, becomes a beacon of wisdom and hope in his life. It’s seems only right that she’s played by Anya Taylor-Joy, the actress who has, in my opinion, eyes that seem to have been custom made for the camera’s attention (yea, more than the eyes of any actor living or dead). Her tremendous, shining eyes give Olga a sense of seeing so much more than Amleth’s narrow and bloodshot eyes ever could. She eventually comes to see a hope for the two of them to break away from the path of violence and find a more meaningful and rewarding life somewhere else.

She wants to set Amleth free from the dangers of clinging to the source of his wrath, that false narrative he has believed, that false narrative that he might now see clearly and overcome.

If you think that severed head looks familiar, trust yourself. You know that guy. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

Here is an opportunity to show audiences something so much more than — so much better than — the bloody revenge for which so many of them seem to have an insatiable appetite.

There is already plenty here to admire. Everything from the costumes to the sets — which often remind of me of Terrence Malick’s work in The New World — are immersive and awe-inspiring. Eggers always knows where to put the camera. And the cast, as in every Eggers film, seems caught up in a fit of inspiration and chemistry, with one possible exception. I’m not sure I find Alexander Skarsgård to be the strongest choice for this role — he still seems more of a Movie Star than an immersive actor. He never surprises me here. Nicole Kidman, on the other hand, is terrifying and fearless in The Northman. I find the price of admission more than rewarded just for the spectacle of her fully committed performance. (I have to admit, though, that I half-expected her to break the fourth wall during a bloody battle scene and say, as she does in that awful AMC promo video, “Heartbreak feels good in a place like this.”)

If I can trust my first experience with the film, I think Olga becomes the movie’s conscience. We embrace Amleth’s doubts, his momentary fear that he might not have any moral high ground to stand on here, as he waves his sword around and challenges his foe. Will Amleth choose to reject the wiser, more complicated understanding of what was really happening in his youth? Will he hold to his original emotional response, as reasonable as it might have been once upon a time, even though he now has a chance to see that it was childish, and that it will only lead to more bloodshed and folly?

He may not have six fingers on his left hand, but still — this guy is bad news. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

I think we are supposed to side with Olga in her appeal to dissuade Amleth from his quest. I have a hard time believing that Eggers us to side with Amleth in abandoning a future with his family in favor of the glory of a battle to the death. I think Eggers wants us to see that this is an old, old story, and that today we can be enlightened enough to glimpse a brighter path.

But I could be wrong about this.

So much depends upon how we interpret the film’s closing moments — which I won’t spoil here. They complicate matters significantly, and give those who disagree with me their best evidence.Several of the critics I trust the most are upset about this movie, making strong arguments that it is not only disappointing but dangerous. I completely respect these arguments.

So, rather than claim I have “the right reading” of this film, I’m inclined to borrow an expression from Winston Churchill (who was speaking about Russia, not Hamlet, when he said them): Eggers’ film is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” It’s going to get people talking.

Bjork is back on the big screen! It’s just really, really hard to see her clearly. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

But at this point, I do have a different interpretation of the film — particularly because I can’t stop thinking about Eggers’s two previous films. Both The Witch and The Lighthouse give us central characters who “turn to the Dark Side,” so to speak. In their minds and by their chosen values, they triumph — sure. But they do so at the cost of their own souls. At the cost of their souls.

I am inclined to argue — only every so slightly, and I’m wide open to being persuaded otherwise — that The Northman is right in step with those films. I believe that Amleth is a tragic figure, one who is deluded into thinking he has triumphed, but from whom we must keep a skeptical distance, refusing to celebrate him as triumphant, horrified by what has become of him and what will probably likely become of his family. His self-affirming vision at the end is not unlike the ecstatic ascension of the young woman possessed at the conclusion of The Witch.

In the film’s fiery volcano finale, I couldn’t help but hear the distant echo of Young Obi-Wan’s cry: “You were the chosen one!” Yeah, Amleth might’ve been, if he’d listened. The most heroic figure I know had a singular response to unfathomable evil, and in his response I find hope for an ultimate deliverance. After all, once you have started down the Dark Path, if you don’t seize upon the moments of grace that are offered you, well… as the little green guru says, “forever will it dominate your destiny.”

I prefer the Shakespeare version of this story, for the record. It gives us a clearer vision of wisdom and folly. And its truth can set us free.

The Northman on the rampage. [Image from the Focus Features trailer.]

But I think Eggers’ version will stick with me. Amleth’s dawning realizations about all that he misunderstood in childhood — these resonate with me. Some of the work I am doing now is learning to accept revelations about my childhood that were a long time coming. In a sense, it’s yet another injury, another realization of betrayal. It wasn’t a case of my family being “the Good Guys” and the world around us being “The Bad Guys.” The impulse to draw lines in such a binary fashion is understandable when someone is hurt, but it’s also childish, and it can cause us to take a bad situation and make it far, far worse. I look back at many years of speaking with contempt for those who I believed to be antagonistic toward my family. I look back at the stories I believed, the stories I told myself, and how they hardened into fury and resentment that have probably burned years away from the potential span of my life. The truth is setting me free — but not before the lies (some of which have been self-inflicted) have done a world of damage.

I’m grateful for storytellers who have helped me see the cost of vengeful impulses. I’m grateful for the Gospel’s vision of a braver response that can lead to help and healing. Thus, I’ve broken away from the masses that cheer for the fulfillment of revenge quests. Stories of violent heroism always seem like tragedies to me. Violence is cyclical, after all: If you respond to violence with violence, all you’re doing is perpetuating violence in a way that all but guarantees it will continue. Instead of going all Braveheart and raising a weapon in a roaring challenge, Christ receives his enemies’ violence with open arms, suffers it, and refuses to let it remain in the world. In canceling violence, he saves us from sins. That is the kind of courage and character I find worth celebrating.

Amleth is too blinded by rage, and by a perverse cultural milieu of what we now call “toxic masculinity,” to see the better path. And that is why his story is such a tragedy. Hopefully it will be received by audiences for what I believe it is: a memorable, harrowing, cautionary nightmare.