Early-in The Northmana unique display of father/son bonding fills the screen as King Aurvandill War-Raven (Ethan Hawke) and Amleth (played as a child by oscar novak and as an adult by Alexander Skarsgard) crouch on all fours and began barking like dogs. Isolated from the rest of the world in an underground bunker, they proceed to become even more animalistic in the presence of Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe), who oversees this ritual. Aurvandill and Amleth bark, they growl, they scamper around, they even burp and fart without even batting an eye. They may be king and prince, rulers of their domain. But here, in this confine, they’re channeling the conviction and primal nature of animals. They have become beasts.
What would be an unexpected sequence in most other movies registers in The Northman as pair for the course. After all, this is a movie by writer/director Robert Eggers. Across all three of his directorial efforts, which also include witch and The Lighthouse, there has been a prominent presence of memorable sequences involving animals. The presence of beasts comes in many forms, including the explicit on-screen presence of animals or just humans channeling the behavior of animals (among other manifestations). However, if it’s an Eggers film, that presence is bound to be around.
That presence includes the simple fact that animals are often signs of ominousness in the works of Eggers, as well as manifestations of something much larger. Black Phillip-in witchfor instance, may look like just a simple goat, but he turns out to be the vessel for a demonic being that helps protagonist Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) find her way to the world of witches. Similarly, a seagull in The Lighthouse is said to house the spirits of dead sailors, while in The Northman Aurvandill is implied to have been reincarnated as a crow who watches over and even aids his son in his revenge quest.
These beasts don’t have any signifiers on their physical forms to indicate that they’re abnormal, and that’s the point. Eggers isn’t saying that only a goat with a massive scar or an unusually shaped crow has significance. He’s subtly implying the value of animals by suggesting that hidden importance can be found in any creature on any farm, beach, field, or any other domain. What you see is not always what you get, a concept that human characters in Eggers films, such as Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) so easily forget. Their dismissal of the value of these creatures, chiefly seen when Winslow kills a seagull that keeps taunting him, only results in more pain and tragedy.
This cognition of the value of creatures rooted in nature connects to the recurring interest in paganism that permeates titles like witch and The Northman. In these films, characters like Northman’s Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy) are always aware of the power of nature, including the way animals are not to be trifled with. This is a fact ignored by people occupying higher positions in society who adhere to other non-Paganistic theologies. Demonized throughout history, paganism is glanced at with a sympathetic gaze across the works of Eggers and informs the way he approaches animals in his work.
Similarly, the way Eggers movies function as being like classic myths also makes the prominent presence of animals inevitable. movies like The Northman or The Lighthouse are devoid of postmodern winks to the camera or other sly self-referential nods. Instead, they’re straight-faced tales full of classical oversized conflicts between man and nature, ones that echo the great myths of old. Whether it’s the tales of Rama encountering the Vanara (who’re often depicted as humanoid monkeys in artwork) or animals manifesting as symbols of the Greek Gods (among many other uses of animals in Greek mythology), animals have often been an immediately identifiable key part of iconic myths.
Thus, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Eggers also turns to animals in his works set in the deep past, especially when The Northman is based on a piece of Scandinavian mythology while its use of a crow to symbolize a dead father in The Northman works as a tip of the hat to the significance of ravens to the Norse God Odin. Even the roles of animals in these titles mirror the way they were employed in ancient myths. Beasts would often be utilized as a way of showingcasing the folly or arrogance of man. Think of the moment The Odyssey where a visit to the God Circe results in this deity using her magic to turn Odysseus’s men into pigs. Nature is often the one left standing in this and other such, while mortal man is erased from the picture. The use of animals like Black Phillip in the features of Robert Eggers sees this director continuing, rather than parodying, this motif.
There is also the way animals are often used in the movies by Robert Eggers to highlight how the real savages in these stories are human beings. The various canines of The Northman they may bark and growl in an intimidating fashion, but we never see them engaging in the kind of senseless slaughtering that their human owners do. Meanwhile, the increasingly absurd and unhinged behavior of the two leads of The Lighthouse is a stark contrast to the more subdued actions of the movies seagull. A creature often dubbed a “rat with wings” still have more composition than two dudes trapped in a lighthouse for a prolonged period of time.
Eggers doesn’t have so much a nihilistic view of humans as a realistic expectation for what people are capable of. witch, for example, sees a family demonizing their daughter Thomasin during a crisis in the name of adhering to their traditional religious beliefs. Rather than sticking together during times of hardship, these family members use Puritan theological beliefs about “witchcraft” to justify creating a scapegoat for inexplicable terrors. Meanwhile, the plot of the revenge thriller The Northman is kicked off by a man brutally slaughtering his brother and taking his sister-in-law in the name of a selfish power grab.
That movie also sees Vikings often channeling the spirits of wild animals before they go out to slaughter and capture people. Though their chants indicate they want to channel the vibes of wolves and bears, their ensuing carnage is decidedly the work of human beings, complete with the use of handheld weapons to club men off horses. Throughout these and other story details in the works of Eggers, humans reveal themselves to be more beastly than any woodland critter.
These realistic depictions of the worst of humanity are only made more vivid when compared to the more mundane behavior of the assorted animals in these individual features. In the ending of witchthis quality goes so far as to ask the viewer to be relieved when the unpredictable goat Black Phillip murders nefarious human William (Ralph Ineson). This moment also reflects how the empathetic depiction of animals goes hand-in-hand with how the works of Eggers often encourage subversion of the societal status quo. witch ends with witches being depicted as not terrifying but a welcome oasis from restrictive societal norms. Similarly, animals, though often thought of as dumb beasts good only for providing food, are seen across the works of Eggers as heroic figures we should cheer on to best inferior humans.
These subversive qualities are one of the countless features in the works of Robert Eggers that prove intoxicating. To watch one of his movies of him is to submerge yourself in a world that feels like it happened on another planet, not just in another age. But through the richly detailed period-era settings, discernibly human qualities, many of them disturbing, do emerge, including in the role animals play in modern-day masterworks like witch or The Lighthouse. To witness the assorted roles various beasts play in these movies is to witness a microcosm of the detailed-oriented storytelling that makes Eggers such a fascinating filmmaker.
It also means bearing witness to the sage advice that it’s bad luck to kill a sea bird, which is always handy to remember.
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