The following article contains spoilers for "The Northman." It also contains discussions of graphic violence and sensitive subject matter.
Robert Eggers’ "The Northman" draws from the Scandinavian myths that inspired William Shakespeare’s "Hamlet." Those familiar with "Hamlet" or subsequent works inspired by it such as "The Lion King" will have some idea what to expect in the broad strokes of the story. Those who know anything about viking history will also know to expect some intense violence.
Even with these expectations, however, "The Northman" still finds ways to jar and unnerve the audience. Certain plot elements come as genuine surprises, and the extremes of violence on display offer many moments to gasp over. For some tastes, the movie might take things too far, but for others, that very extremity is what makes it such a powerful film in the first place. It’s a grotesque film, but also an artful one, making smart decisions about what to show onscreen vs. what to merely imply. Whether love or hate the movie, it’s sure to hit hard. Here’s what hits the hardest.
Young Amleth’s first act of vengeance
The inciting incident of "The Northman," the murder of King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) by his brother Fjölnir (Claes Bang), won’t come as a shock to anyone familiar with "Hamlet" adaptations or even someone who’s seen the trailer. It’s certainly intense, viewed from the perspective the young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak), but you come in knowing exactly what’s going to happen. The immediate aftermath of this murder, however, brings some jolting surprises.
In a move more closely resembling the actions of Scar from "The Lion King" than of King Claudius from "Hamlet," Fjölnir immediately orders his underlings to kill Amleth as well. Finnr gets closest to murdering the boy, but in his first act of graphically violent self-defense and rage-fueled vengeance, Amleth bites Finnr’s nose off and makes his escape. Finnr is known as "the Nose-Stub" for the rest of the film, his face a reminder of just what Amleth is capable of in his quest for revenge.
The berserker raid
Were vikings the original furries? "The Northman" seems to make that case. In one of the sweeter early scenes, young Amleth and Aurvandill play-act as wolves as part of a spiritual ceremony. When Amleth grows up (now played by Alexander Skarsgård), he’s still taking on the role of a wolf as well as a bear, but for much darker purposes. He’s become one of the berserkers, a group of vikings who take on animalistic personas to essentially abandon their humanity in the pursuit of ransacking villages.
The berserker raid in the land of the Rus is one of the film’s most striking and intense action sequences, gorgeously filmed in a single shot. Amleth himself remains more sympathetic than his fellow berserkers in that he doesn’t target women and children, but he’s still a violent man who doesn’t seem perturbed by working with even more violent men. In the scene’s haunting conclusion, a building slowly burns to the ground as the screams of people inside are heard.
Olga defends herself with period blood
While the threat of sexual violence is inherent to the setting and subject matter of "The Northman," Eggers’ film refreshingly avoids on-screen depictions such actions. At one point in the movie, Olga, the enslaved woman played by Anya Taylor-Joy who eventually becomes Amleth’s main love interest, demonstrates a unique and memorably gross way of defending herself from such threats.
When one man appears to be coming on to her without consent, Olga first lifts up her dress, revealing that she’s having her period. If that by itself wasn’t effective at stopping this would-be attacker, this is only the beginning of her main defense method: she smears her would-be attacker’s face with her own menstrual rags! While this is technically the least violent display of blood in "The Northman," the combination of suddenness and weird gross-out humor make it one of the most surprising moments in the movie.
Alas, poor Heimir
One of the early ways "The Northman" makes audiences dislike Fjölnir even before he betrays his brother is his negative attitude towards Heimir, the "fool" (both jester and spiritual advisor) played by Willem Dafoe. It’s not exactly shocking that Fjölnir would have Heimir killed, but the information is revealed in a grotesque and surreal manner: Amleth encounters a He-Witch (Ingvar Eggert Sigurðsson) who’s held onto Heimar’s decapitated and decayed head as a means of facilitating communication with his ghost.
This scene is not part of the original Amleth legends but instead appears to be a twisted reference to one of the most iconic scenes in "Hamlet." In Act 5, Scene 1, Hamlet gives his famous "Alas, poor Yorick!" monologue reminiscing about his family’s dead court jester upon seeing his skull dug up in a graveyard. The severed head of Heimir parallels Yorick’s skull, though instead of inspiring solemn reflections on death, it instead offers mystical instructions to uncover a legendary sword.
Yes, there’s a zombie in this
One of the distinguishing features of Robert Eggers’ style is that, even as he strives for historical accuracy, his films also treat the beliefs of these historical periods as matter-of-fact real. There are actual witches in "The Witch," something supernatural happening in "The Lighthouse," and "The Northman" is fully comfortable balancing history and mythology. While much of the magic in "The Northman" can be attributed to dreams or drug-induced hallucinations, there’s one scene in particular which dramatically throws the story into the realm of fantasy.
The scene in question is Amleth’s battle for the Night Blade, the magic sword with which he’s foretold to defeat his uncle. A corpse guards the sword. As Amleth tries to grab the Night Blade, the corpse comes to life and fights him with it. The ensuing zombie battle isn’t jarring for its violence so much as for the thrilling shift into unexpected genre territory.
A violent game of knattleikr
One of the many well-researched cultural details within "The Northman" is the viking sport of knattleikr. The game is somewhat similar to lacrosse or an earthbound version of quidditch, with players carrying sticks while trying to get the ball to the opposing goal. The act of playing it could get absurdly violent, with players brutally beating and even flat-out killing each other.
In "The Northman," slaves are selected to play knattleikr for the amusement of their masters, essentially a form of gladiatorial combat. Amleth is one of those chosen. When his half-brother Gunnar runs onto the field, the one of the players threatens to attack the kid. Amleth steps in to save his kin — and goes on to beat in the skull of the other player. While the gory details aren’t shown, it’s a disturbing moment even if the motivations for the killing are relatively more justified than some of the others in the film.
Drug trips turn deadly
"The Northman" has a strong psychedelic sensibility, with two major drug trip sequences in addition to generally trippy imagery. Amleth’s initiation ritual, in which he drinks "vision mead" and first sees the Tree of Kings, is the more positive of the two psychedelic experiences. The second one, wherein Olga secretly drugs the meals of Fjölnir’s men to help clear the path for Amleth on his way to Fjölnir’s house, results in a series of "bad trips," at least one of which turns deadly.
In their drugged state, the men experience visions of evil spirits. Some of them just end up falling unconscious as a result, but one is so utterly distraught by whatever he’s seeing that he ends up stabbing himself. There are plenty of gory and disturbing deaths throughout "The Northman," but this particular drug-induced suicide stands out as particularly intense. Tonally, it’s one of the closest scenes to the pure terror of Eggers’ previous horror films.
Queen Gudrún confronts Amleth
Amleth’s one-on-one meeting with his mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), is perhaps the best scene in the whole movie. It forces the viewer to reassess everything they thought they knew about the story so far with two messed up twists. The first big reveal is that, rather than a princess betrothed to the king, Gudrún was a slave who was raped by Aurvandill. She was in Fjölnir’s plan to kill the king from the beginning, and who could blame her for that given the horrible circumstances? This reframes the entire heroic narrative of Amleth into one where he’s essentially the villain.
Lest one become too sympathetic towards Gudrún because of this backstory, however, the scene has another big reveal in store. The queen tells her son that, since no one knows that they’re related, she wants to wed him should he kill Fjölnir. A sudden incestuous kiss makes for the single most shocking moment in the movie. The wild shifts in power dynamics throughout this sequence may very well earn Kidman another Oscar nomination — she’s certainly deserving of one.
Making art of dismembered corpses
After so many graphic killings, it’s easy to get desensitized to the constant barrage of violence, but "The Northman" still finds ways to new ways to shock throughout its runtime. Seeing Amleth kill even more of Fjölnir’s men isn’t particularly jarring, but seeing the dismembered body parts of their corpses pinned to a building in the shape of a horse? That’s an image that could haunt one’s nightmares. It’s almost like something out of "Hannibal."
Witnessing this gory display, Fjölnir decides to blame the Christian slaves for this, making a huge leap in logic with the justification that "their god is a corpse nailed to a tree." Fjölnir and Aurvandill might have been enemies, but this scene serves as a reminder that in terms of their horrible treatment of slaves, they’ve got far more in common than they might have wished to acknowledge.
Gunnar becomes heir
A child with no real awareness of the cycle of vengeance happening within his family, Gunnar is the most innocent character in "The Northman" — but just by living in this world, he can’t stay truly innocent for long. After Amleth kills his cousin Thórir, Gunnar is set to become the new heir to the throne at Thórir’s funeral. The ceremony in which this occurs is a truly frightening one, especially for a child to experience.
Gunnar takes on the mantle of heir by killing for the first time. He is given a sword and a horse, and soon he’s swinging that sword to cut off the horse’s head. The splattering of blood is said to symbolize the end of mourning. To make matters worse, the horse isn’t the only living being sacrificed for the sake of this funeral ritual. In the background of the scene, a singing woman is seen stabbed to death as a human sacrifice.
Amleth kills his mother and stepbrother
Throughout "The Northman," Amleth constantly reiterates his three big goals: "Avenge father, save mother, kill Fjölnir." By the end of the movie, he’s succeeded at avenging his dad and killing his uncle, but the mission to save his mother is a complete failure. It’s not just that Gudrún doesn’t want or need to be "saved," as previously discussed. Amleth can’t even "save" her against her will because, when he returns to Iceland for his final battle against Fjölnir, he ends up killing her.
Not only does he kill his mother (a serious violation of his previous code of refusing to kill women), but he also ends up killing his stepbrother Gunnar, who he’d initially considered an innocent to be spared. Both of these killings were in self-defense, but in the end, Amleth finds himself guilty of much the same crimes against family as Fjölnir. There’s basically no moral high ground left for our protagonist.
The big naked volcano duel
The final battle between Amleth and Fjölnir takes place at "the Gates of Hel" — an active volcano. This fight takes the characters’ hyper-masculinity to comical extremes: fighting completely naked, the sword-slinging takes on extra phallic subtext. The two combatants end up killing each other; Amleth’s magical sword slices Fjölnir’s head off with ease, but Fjölnir stabs the already-weakened Amleth through the heart. Amleth ascends to Valhalla at peace in the knowledge his wife and future children are safe.
The climax of "The Northman" is extreme, but arguably the most jarring aspect of the scene is the one thing it holds back on. While the volcanic fumes give an easy excuse for why neither of the nude combatants’ genitals are visible, it’s still genuinely weird that a film that holds nothing back in terms of violence can’t handle male nudity. According to an interview with Eggers on Polygon, the crew actually went through the effort of making CG penises (Skarsgård and Bang performed the scene in thongs for safety purposes), only to have to cover them up in order to show the film on airplanes.