How The Northman’s Director Looked At Masculinity And ‘The Macho Stuff’ In The Viking Revenge Thriller

Watching The Northman, you’d think that Robert Eggers has been his life being fascinated by Vikings culture. The movie not only has the same authentic feel possessed by his previous two films, but goes deep as far as adapting the legend of Amleth and including elements of Norse mythology. If one didn’t know any better, one might think of it being a long-gestating passion project for the filmmaker, only now able to be made thanks to the success of The Witch and The Lighthouse.

The truth is much more complicated, however. In reality, Robert Eggers wasn’t particularly knowledgeable about Vikings prior to getting together with Alexander Skarsgård to make The Northman – the reason being its association with masculine tropes and the misappropriation of the culture by right wing extremists. These conflicts were ultimately overcome by a combination of two things: Eggers recognizing the natural beauty found in Scandinavia, and his ability to comment on the subjects with his approach to the story.

I interviewed Robert Eggers earlier this month during the virtual press day for The Northman, and it was during our conversation that I learned about why he bridled at the subject of Vikings prior to making the movie, and how his opinions changed following an eye-opening trip to Iceland. Said the writer/director,

I didn't have a ton of knowledge 'cause originally I wasn't interested in Vikings. I didn't like the macho stuff, and the right wing misappropriation of Viking culture put me off even more. But when I took a trip to Iceland, the landscapes were so brutal and inspiring and epic that it made me pick up some Viking sagas and learn about them.

It would have been impossible for Robert Eggers to make The Northman as the faithful, authentic thriller that it is with his limited knowledge about the subject matter, so he enlisted key help. Icelandic poet and novelist Sjón came aboard the project to co-write the script, and what the filmmaker calls “the finest historians and archeologists in the field of Viking studies” were called upon to ensure accuracy in the telling of the Amleth legend and depicting the year 895 AD.

As anyone who has even just seen the trailer for The Northman can attest, what still ended up being a part of the film was what Robert Eggers describes as the “macho stuff.” What pop culture regularly renders as high testosterone clichés – aggression, revenge, honor, and power – are all still themes with which the movie engages. To be more blunt about it, this is a movie where Alexander Skarsgård is ripping out throats and Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe get naked to howl at the moon.

For Eggers, it was important not to impose modern sensibilities and our society’s evolving definition of masculinity in the material, but where the story concludes provides the audience the opportunity to make judgements about the value of the hero’s choices. Said the writer/director,

I always try to present the worldview of the culture that I'm telling the story about without judgment. But it's tricky because like the ending of the film, it needs to be happy ending for Alexander Skarsgård's character. But like I don't necessarily personally see it that way, you know? So it's a tight rope.

I won’t spoil the ending of The Northman for you, but the good news is that you don’t have long to wait before you can experience the much-buzzed about epic yourself. Starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Claes Bang, Björk, and Willem Dafoe, the remarkable film arrives in theaters this Friday, April 22. You can find local showtimes on the official website.

To discover all of the films presently scheduled to come out between now and the end of the year, head over to our 2022 Movie Release Calendar.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.