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For better or Norse, Robert Eggers' 'The Northman' gives us heavy metal Hamlet

Eric Webb
Austin 360

Recently, I decided I probably don't like Shakespeare. I watched the Denzel Washington objet d'art "The Tragedy of Macbeth" and squirmed in my seat, hoping Lady Macbeth would add another damned spot to her hands and give me sweet release from tedium.

"The Northman" is a new film from fantasy-horror whiz Robert Eggers, and it's not Shakespeare, which is great news for my will to live. It's also not not Shakespeare: Eggers based this tale of Nordic revenge on the Danish legend that inspired ol' Billy's "Hamlet."

Of course, I didn't grow up on folk tales from Denmark, and unless you're a immortal elf stalking the fjords, you didn't either. It's nigh-impossible to view this gorgeous, disturbing sliver of sword 'n' sorcery outside the lens of "Alas, poor Yorick!" and all that. For fans of Eggers' bad-trip folk tales like "The Witch" and "The Lighthouse," that's both a boon and a curse upon the surprisingly conventional "Northman."

Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth in "The Northman," based on an ancient Danish tale that inspired "Hamlet."

In ancient-ish Nordic lands, King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke) returns home from war to Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman and a wig), young Prince Amleth (Oscar Novak) and the brother-who-won't-be-king Fjölnir (Claes Bang). The royal warlord has seen better days and takes his son on a vision quest in order to prepare him to take the throne. 

But instead of a stately tapestry, the fates have spun the thread of their lives into a particularly ugly sweater. Fjölnir murders his brother and steals the queen, ordering his nephew Amleth's death, too. But the prince evades this fate and runs toward an exile that over many years turns him into Alexander Skarsgård and a pair of unbelievable trapezius muscles.

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After a post-pillage encounter with a witch who looks a lot like Björk because she is played by Björk, the adult Amleth returns to his homeland with a wily young sorceress (Anya Taylor-Joy, doing her schtick from "The New Mutants") on a mission of Viking vengeance. Destiny, he finds, his not necessarily easy.

Hey, I gotta go back to the Björk thing. You understand.

Eggers has become revered by some genre fans for the deliriously dark corners he's willing to go in the name of unhinged cinematic moments. "The Witch" has its Satanic goat (Black Phillip, we'll never forget you), and "The Lighthouse" had ... well, there were many things that movie had, starting with a mermaid and continuing with Willem Dafoe basically being a demonic Cap'n Crunch.

Nicole Kidman stars as Queen Gudrún in director Robert Eggers’ "The Northman."

"The Northman" has some hallucinatory shoes to fill, in other words, and destiny hangs over each frame like a black cloud. Björk's eyeless prophet is just one of its chief messengers, as is Dafoe in typically pop-eyed form. Any time Eggers plunges Amleth into occult happenings beyond his understanding, the movie sings. It's a spooky song, it's got a great beat and you can scream to it.

You might scream, too, at how gross "The Northman" is willing to go. You want farts? You want bloody frontal nudity? You want bodies dissembled and rearranged into shapes that bodies normally do not find themselves? I would say that perhaps those are weird things to want! But if you do not mind them, many of millions of dollars have helped bring them to your local theater.

And yet, with all of this — even the all-too-short Björk of it all! — "The Northman" tells a conventional story. Perhaps that's the peril of remixing Shakespeare's own remix. We know the stoic brute, we know the treacherous uncle, we know the date with destiny. We have, if nothing else, seen "The Lion King."

Alexander Skarsgård stars as Amleth and Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga in director Robert Eggers’ Viking epic "The Northman."

Eggers exhumes the bones of a primal myth and arranges them in spectacular fashion, no doubt. But just as "The Northman" itself is interested in scrying meaning from old ways, you'll want to find something to take away here. Will you reconsider the meaning of redemption, or realize something about legacy, or even discern a nihilistic statement about power?

Mostly, there's just violence, ugliness and hunky, unbathed men meting those things out. Vikings can get you only so far, maybe. But hey, throw a certain Icelandic pop star in there and you're at least gonna have a good time.

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'The Northman' 

Grade: B

Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Claes Bang, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke, Anya Taylor-Joy

Director: Robert Eggers

Rated: R for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity

Running time: 2 hours, 17 minutes

Watch: In theaters