In Review: 'The Northman,' 'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent'
This week, Robert Eggers evokes Conan the Barbarian and 'Hamlet' in his bloody Viking epic, and Nicolas Cage's four-decade-long career is reflected in a meta-action hall of mirrors.
Dir. Robert Eggers
They didn't have movie theaters in 10th century Iceland, but if they did The Northman would have been an Avatar-sized hit. A tale of bloody revenge that combines Icelandic sagas, elements of Robert E. Howard’s Conan adventures, and more than a little bit of Hamlet, the latest from director Robert Eggers (The Witch, The Lighthouse) frequently plays less like an attempt to recreate a past era than a product of that era itself. It’s a violent, lusty story filled with entwined bloodlines and touches of the supernatural, all presented without irony — or at least no irony accessible without an oil derrick-like plunge into the subtext. If actual Vikings could somehow stumble across it, they would likely, in 21st century parlance, feel seen.
In that, it keeps with Eggers’ past work, particularly The Witch, which plunged viewers into the paranoid, god fearing mindset of Puritans who didn’t find it unlikely or unreasonable that supernatural forces of evil and perversion would walk alongside them in the isolated New England woods. The Northman, co-written by Eggers and Icelandic multi-hyphenate Sjón (who also co-wrote last year’s Lamb), similarly never strays from the perspective of its lead, Amleth (played as a child by Oscar Novak and as a grown, extremely muscular man by Alexander Skarsgård), who we first meet as the prince of a small kingdom deeply attached to his mother Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman) and in awe of his frequently absent father King Aurvandill (Ethan Hawke). His happiness is shattered, however, when his uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang) kills his father and claims both Aurvandill’s kingdom and queen.
Amleth flees, but his desire for revenge endures as he becomes a battle-hardened warrior, especially when a Seeress (Björk) suggests vengeance can be his, if he wants it. He does, but it won’t be easy, even after stowing aboard a slave ship destined for Fjölnir’s new kingdom in Iceland and befriending Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a Slavic passenger who seems to have powers of her own.
Eggers stages Amleth’s bloody path to Fjölnir with striking visuals, bone-crunching action (often literally), and an abundance of gore, transporting viewers into a long-ago world in which death is always, at best, at arm’s length. Much of the film’s power, however, comes from how it erases that distance, both by sharing Amleth’s monomaniacal focus and offering, among the strewn entrails and severed limbs, echoes of the world we know:. With its folk songs, a game that looks like a primitive, no-refs-required version of rugby, and the Hamlet echoes that serve as reminders that Shakespeare’s inspirations and inspirations lost to time, The Northman often seems set in a rough draft of the civilization to come.
And maybe it’s not that different. Confronted, with the likelihood that Aurvandill perhaps wasn’t so noble, or was only a few degrees more principled than his usurper, Amleth can’t fully process possibilities outside the narrative that he’s so long lived. We, on the other hand, can. That makes The Northman’s vision of politics, culture, and principles as things that get imposed at the point of a sword both thrilling in its rawness and immediacy but also a bit disquieting in its familiarity. —Keith Phipps
The Northman opens tomorrow in theaters everywhere.
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent
Dir. Tom Gormican
Nicolas Cage once floated the idea of performing under the pseudonym Miles Lovecraft—a fusion of the world's favorite jazz legend and cosmic horror authors. “Miles would work for scale,” Cage said, because he hadn’t done anything yet and would need to pay his dues. Our own Keith Phipps dug up that 2000 interview in his new book, Age of Cage, which digs deep into Cage's attraction to dualities, as evidenced by his work in Face/Off and Adaptation, as well as his lifelong fascination with Superman, which led to a project that never quite came to fruition. Though he never followed through on this delightfully absurd Miles Lovecraft idea, Cage is clearly someone who thinks a lot about his image and range, and the multiplicity of ways he can be perceived. The chapter is called “The Two Cages,” but the real number is much higher.
In that sense, Tom Gormican’s state-of-the-cage riff The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent feels an inevitability for an actor who’s not only been a star for four decades, but taken an unusually active role in shaping his own eccentric iconography. Over the decades, it’s sometimes been a challenge to know how to react to a Cage performance, because he’s serious about his craft but occasionally invites laughter with his big, emphatic gestures, which tiptoe (and, okay, sometimes vault) to the edge of self-parody. Though The Unbearable Weight (written by Gormican and Kevin Etten) seemsa couple of rewrites away from the clever meta-comedy it aspires to be, the film exhibits welcome appreciation for the fullness of Cage as an actor and public figure, even if it’s mostly committed to paying off his silly side.
The real Cage has insisted on distancing himself from the “Nick Cage” he plays in the film, but some of the basic outlines are beyond dispute: Nick is a prolific actor who’s scrambling to figure out his place in a constantly changing industry. He has a huge cult following. He also has debts. When this Nick fails to get a part in a David Gordon Green film—Green, who in real life directed Cage in 2013’s Joe, one of his best performances, makes a cameo here—and his hotel bill climbs into the hundreds of thousands, his agent comes to him with a tantalizing (if humbling) offer. A billionaire fan named Javi Gutierrez (Pedro Pascal) will pay Nick a million dollars to appear at his birthday party in beautiful Mallorca, Spain, requiring little more than a weekend of glad-handing and storytelling. Easy money, even if it makes him feel like a clown.
Nick and Javi hit it off famously, despite Javi’s predictable request that his guest read his screenplay, but two CIA agents (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz) inform Nick that his new friend is a notorious arms dealer who has kidnapped a politician’s daughter in an effort to swing an election. Surely Nick, who has an estranged daughter of his own, will want to redeem himself with a little light spy craft, right? And with that, The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent turns into a quotation-mark “thriller” that falls somewhere between the blockbuster heights of ‘90s Cage and the pay-for-the-castle, straight-to-video actioners he occasionally has shot in Romania. No worries, though. As Javi enthusiastically notes, a behind-the-scenes DVD featurette informs us that, for Gone in 60 Seconds, Cage actually learned to drive at top speed.
The references to Cage’s career are often that gratifyingly obscure, but The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent arrives at a moment when this kind of self-awareness and “Easter egg”-hunting is drearily common. Even the premise of pitting a fictional adventurer against a real adventure is now playing at a theater near you in The Lost City. What salvages the film, beyond Pascal’s infectiously starstruck performance, is Cage’s absolute commitment to the role, which requires him to play the brash entertainer while openly reflecting on the peaks and valleys of the real star’s career. The intermittent appearance of a younger, Wild At Heart-era imaginary doppelgänger named Nicky recalls Adaptation, plus those dualities Phipps digs into in Age of Cage, but it’s also a reminder of how difficult it can be for an actor like Cage to stay true to an image that’s never as fixed as it seems. He can never be “Nicky” again, but he can’t escape that voice in his head, urging him to stay cool and relevant, father time be damned. Being chased by murderous gun dealers is nothing for a man who’s always on the run. — Scott Tobias
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent opens tomorrow in theaters everywhere.
Now I want to see "The Northman" sooner rather than later. Thanks!
"seems a couple of rewrites away from the clever meta-comedy it aspires to be"
unsurprising, but disappointing to hear