‘The Northman’ Takes History, Spirituality, and Young Men Seriously

There are three topics that popular Western storytelling, especially at the movies, currently struggles to engage seriously: history, spirituality, and young men. When history is portrayed, it is almost always through a postmodern lens. It is judged and manipulated, for better or worse, to fit contemporary worldviews and issues. Consider films like The Last Duel, which pretends 14th century French women were more despised and disbelieved than we know from the film’s source case to make a point about current Western politics, or The Revenant, which compresses the American West’s timeline to judge Native American genocide and the overexploitation of natural resources. However useful these manipulations may be for storytelling, they are not an objective way to understand history.

When spirituality appears in film, it fares somewhat better than the other two topics but is still often twisted or ignored. Look at last year’s Benedetta, in which the Catholic church is cartoonishly villainized and its protagonist’s spirituality eroticized beyond recognition, or Marvel flicks like Black Panther and Shang-Chi, which both take specific cultures’ mystical beliefs and portray them as sanitized conglomerations. These religions were and are important to people for reasons never explored in the films.

Then as far as young men are concerned, most movies feel beyond worrying about their needs at the moment in favor of bringing attention to historically oppressed people groups. With varying levels of success, recent MCU, Star Wars, and Matrix franchise entries let guys know it’s time for the girls to take over; movies like Knives Out portray their male characters as evil, ridiculous, or idiotic; and toxic masculinity is constantly excoriated without providing a tenable alternative in films like The Invisible Man.

Many of these films are good and contemplate worthy themes, but they are exemplary of a certain cultural unseriousness. Enter The Northman, a film that tries to remedy this situation for postmodern audiences by looking to premodern poetry.

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Comments (26)
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  • Certainly doubt very much that you actually watch this movie.

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  • Great movie. I think it may be the best I’ve seen in a theater since Dunkirk. Had the whole place to myself for the 3pm matinee this afternoon.

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  • I hadn’t planned to watch this movie because the trailers made it look like a lot gratuitous violence and weirdness (and I was not familiar with with Eggers or his earlier movies), but this review is making me reconsider that reaction.

    There is a lot to be said for letting stories tell themselves and leaving the audience to draw their own conclusions.

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  • One of the things I really like about the Dispatch is the movie recommendations

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  • I loved the movie because I like historic realism. I was just amazed at how horrible their lives were. Iceland looked so desolate and inclement, and the people were correspondingly desolate and mean spirited. I don't make a judgement because I would probably be the same in that environment if I manage to live long enough.

    I did think the men's synchronized war dance looked like a it was choreographed for a grammar school play. My only complaint.

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    1. Wait, is The Northman about New York?

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      1. Ha ha.

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  • Eggers is brilliant. The Witch is the damned scariest thing I've ever seen, and years later it still gets under my skin if I'm thinking about it alone in the dark. I absolutely adore his method of contextualizing narratives in the world as his characters would see it; it's such an obvious thing for a storyteller to do, but an absolutely alien (and execrable) mindset to today's storytellers.

    edit: Also, I remember when The Witch came out and all my liberal friends on social media were gushing over what a brilliant modern feminist work it was. Then I watched it, and I could not begin to fathom how one could interpret it as such unless either A) you had that notion preconceived before viewing the film and would not be dissuaded by obvious evidence to the contrary, or B) you believe selling your family to Satan and letting monsters gruesomely butcher your loved ones for the sake of power is a valid aspirational goal for the modern woman. (Okay, maybe that does sound like a little-too-on-the-nose pro-life allegory.)

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    1. Sure, but wouldst thou like to live deliciously?

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      1. NO CHRIS I WOULD NOT

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  • Good review. A fan of Eggers, the witch and the lighthouse were, at least for me, awesomely executed nerdy nods to the classic Dutch docu-horror- drama Witchcraft through the ages,
    In terms of mood and texture. With a touch of lovecraft and the crucible. Now he has this Viking movie, with a beautiful silent era - near melies - visual approach to magic and spirituality. Then again, it was also a lot of well muscled men covered in shit mud and blood screaming in each other’s faces while bashing skulls with heavy objects. Which is also cool. I saw the movie with a predominantly gay male audience in West Hollywood, which was quite appreciative. Meaning the flick has range.

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  • "How do I present the mindset of the people in this world, in this period, without judgment?”

    Oh, to have history approached always in such an unentangled manner as this, to let it belong to those who lived it, to view it objectively from the safe distance of time and space so that we can learn and benefit the most from it. It is the definition of hubris for a postmodern to assume the responsibility of emotionally sacrificing him- or herself in perpetual mourning over the atrocities of the past, and even more so when he or she compels others to join in. We haven't "lived" those experiences, and if we had, now as then and always, there would be few of us who would behave differently. You are no savior when you symbolically martyr yourself incessantly for people and causes long laid to rest, a cowardly farce that requires no real investment of your blood and toil, while you insidiously work to undermine every advancement of society that was gained through the very real struggle of individuals and civilizations over all of time. The current "crisis" of society is a first-world problem that would vanish in a then-world reality. Let's hope we don't require one.

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    1. If the present wouldn’t exist without the evils of the past, doesn’t that justify evils today for a wonderful future tomorrow?

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      1. Can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs. Depends on who’s doing the evil for the future good. Your tribe, or my tribe?

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        1. I hope you’re being sarcastic, dude.

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          1. If I have to elaborate, then the point is missed.

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    2. So, you’re a moral relativist. You sound like you represent the opposite extreme.

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      1. Nothing in my comment implied that any particular past action was either morally relative or morally absolute. My position is rather that the evils of the past are historic and should inform us in the present. What I see instead are evils of the past being used to manipulate society in the present - in ways that will only perpetuate their destructive nature.

        And no. I don't think that we should "justify evils today for a wonderful future tomorrow" - nor do I believe that the former (evils) is avoidable or that the latter (utopia) is attainable.

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  • What an excellent piece - a fascinating way into a rather puzzling film. I appreciate the broader context Ethan provides not only by mentioning "The Green Knight" and "Dune" - both better films than "The Northman," but well grouped here in terms of their view of young men - but also Eggers' other two (very good) films. Like all worthwhile criticism - and credit to The Dispatch for running this example of such - this makes me want to watch the film again. That's the best outcome of all.

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