By Alex McPherson
A snarling, fever-dream rampage of vengeance, director Robert Eggers’ “The Northman” can’t match its stunning attention to detail with an emotionally satisfying narrative.

Set during the Dark Ages, Eggers’ third feature is based on the text that inspired William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” In the fictional kingdom of Hrafnsey, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke) returns home from a long voyage and ordains his son, Amleth (first played by Oscar Novak, then Alexander Skarsgârd), to become the tribe’s future ruler in an elaborate ritual featuring crawling on all fours, farting, levitating, and Aurvandil’s innards morphing into a magical family tree.

Soon after, tragedy strikes. Amleth’s cold-hearted uncle Fjölnir (a menacing yet layered Claes Bang) assassinates Aurvandil, wreaks havoc on the populace, and kidnaps Amleth’s mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). Young Amleth escapes via boat by the skin of his teeth, vowing to get revenge, restore honor to his family, and fulfill his destiny.

Decades later, Amleth has become a ruthless killing machine, raiding nearby villages with a band of like-minded berserkers. After torching a barn full of townspeople, a feather-laden seeress (Björk) reminds Amleth to rejoin the path to slay Fjölnir. Amleth then disguises himself as a Slavic slave en route to Iceland, to the farm where his uncle eventually fled.

Along the way, he meets another slave, the alluring Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who presents a different path to take — if he has the will to recognize the power of love amid chaos.

Ultimately, “The Northman” shines less in terms of thematic depth or provocative characterization than it does in Eggers’ pure, balls-to-the-wall style. If nothing else, the film viscerally immerses us into a specific time and place, where heinous violence is an accepted way of life, and strict traditions dictate one’s future.

Indeed, Eggers throws viewers into an unfamiliar land of rugged vistas and simple-minded cruelty. Amleth’s mentality seems out of his control, forced upon him by what society expects, leaving little room for personal agency and boundless space for blood-letting. 

There’s definitely merit in how “The Northman” unapologetically depicts its Icelandic setting and Viking cultural customs, visualizing the characters’ psychedelic visions in blunt, matter-of-fact fashion that doesn’t seem sanitized or toned-down for general audiences. Like his previous features, “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse,” Eggers depicts the mystical as co-existing with the ordinary, feeding into the characters’ archaic attitudes.

Bizarre rituals underscore their sense of “honor,” but also the traditions they are unable to break away from. The cinematography and editing emphasizes a mystifying and off-kilter world of gods and spirits they’ve devoted themselves to. 

During several extended action sequences, enhanced by Vessel and Robin Carolan’s pulse–pounding score, “The Northman” opts for long-takes, which break that spell, illustrating the grueling nature of combat and encouraging us to judge Amleth as he becomes a beast before our eyes.

The spectacle is enthralling, for a while, as the utter intensity of Eggers’ filmmaking allows us to feel like we’re right in the muck along with him.

The initial adrenaline-fueled carnage becomes repetitive in the film’s latter half, though, where the previously expansive action is restricted to one primary location, and Amleth’s single-mindedness devolves further into grotesque, blackly comic delusion that’s even harder to care about. 

Sadly, despite its spectacular style, “The Northman” doesn’t do enough to peel back the layers of Amleth’s damaged psyche. It follows a fairly standard revenge narrative, even resembling a video game at some points as Amleth receives instructions to “go here, get this item, and kill the bad guys.”

Moments of quiet reflection are few and far between, as Amleth — often saddled with clunky dialogue — goes about his murderous ways. His transformation from an innocent young man into a hardened killing machine is abruptly glossed over, as are the moments between the slaughtering where he starts to question his actions. He essentially remains a broken husk for much of the runtime, unable/unwilling to be vulnerable or consider the risks his acts of violence entail for those he cares about.

Skarsgärd does what he can with the material, roaring with gusto, but Amleth’s arc checks off archetypal plot beats without actually saying anything new about the price of revenge. Similarly, the ever-talented Taylor-Joy is given a simplistic love interest role that mainly serves to check off bullet-points on the way to an inevitable conclusion. The standout performer is Kidman, who lends Queen Gudrún an unpredictably unhinged quality that keeps viewers on their toes.

When the last drop of blood is spilled, “The Northman” lacks the heart and soul necessary to ascend into legend, but there’s enough achingly well–crafted filmmaking on display to declare it an honorable effort.

“The Northman” is a 2022 period action-adventure directed by Robert Eggers and starring Alexander Skarsgard, Anna Taylor-Joy, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Ethan Hawke and Willem Dafoe. It is rated R for strong bloody violence, some sexual content and nudity and runs 2 hours, 20 minutes. It is playing in theaters April 22. Alex’s grade: B

By Lynn Venhaus
William Tell (a shortened surname) is a broken man, but he hides it well. With his well-groomed appearance, this sharp-dressed man looks every bit a winner when he walks through casinos across the country.

But cracks in his icy façade start showing in “The Card Counter,” once we view his austere existence, his penchant for staying at nondescript motels, his OCD-like tendencies, and the flashbacks to his grisly military service.

This revenge thriller shows how an ex-military interrogator turned gambler is haunted by the ghosts of his past.

Tell served in the Iraq War, and afterwards, spent 8.5 years in military prison for torturing the enemy at the Abu Ghraib prison, near Baghdad. The abhorrent behavior of the interrogators and the squalid living conditions are well-documented and glimpsed here.

Isaac is convincing as a man trying to come to terms with the lives he destroyed emotionally and physically. But the mental turmoil has clearly taken a toll, and he seeks redemption – despite not being able to forgive himself.

Wrestling with demons is a specialty of writer and director Paul Schrader, whose last film in 2017, “First Reformed,” was about a guilt-wracked pastor (Ethan Hawke, in his best work to date).

The quintessential outsider, Schrader finally received his first Oscar nomination for the “First Reformed” screenplay but has been part of such highly praised films as “Taxi Driver,” “Raging Bull” and “American Gigolo” for five decades.

He’s not afraid to explore the dark side, and neither is Isaac, who is most well-known as the heroic pilot Poe Dameron in the new “Star Wars” chapters. But he has impressed with edgy portraits in “A Most Violent Year,” “Ex Machina” and “Inside Llewyn Davis.”

This film is dark and disturbing, but also haunting and hypnotic. That is largely due to the cast’s interpretation of this material as well as first-rate production elements.

The fine young actor Tye Sheridan (“Mud,” “Joe”) plays Cirk, who is hell-bent on revenge. He hooks up with Tell at a law enforcement convention, where their mutual enemy, a retired major turned security consultant, Gordo (customary good work from Willem Dafoe), is the keynote speaker. Cirk blames Gordo for his father’s suicide, and he was Tell’s superior officer.

Tell decides to take Cirk under his wing on the casino trail, where he has met the intriguing La Linda, a keen observer who runs a gambling stable for corporations. She has her eye on Tell. He’s wary of this mysterious financier – Tiffany Haddish, playing against type – but he’s in. The trio’s goal is the World Series of Poker.

Like Rev. Toller in “First Reformed,” Tell writes his innermost thoughts in a diary. He has determined that Cirk is too undisciplined to control, and things will go from bad to worse – let’s leave it at that.

While the garish confines of casinos speak volumes about the people who flock there for refuge, entertainment and competition, it is a fitting backdrop for this drama. Alexander Dynan’s cinematography and Ashley Fenton’s production design add to the bleak atmosphere.

The throbbing music score composed by Robert Levon Been adds to a feeling of urgency and is a superb component to the escalating tension.

This is a tough watch. There is an inescapable sadness to it all, but if you are familiar with Schrader’s work, you would know what you are getting. His themes, as always, are his view of the country we live in, and the vulnerable way we all feel under duress.

“The Card Counter” is a revenge thriller directed by Paul Schrader and starring Oscar Isaac, Tiffany Haddish, Tye Sheridan and Willem Dafoe. It is rated R for some disturbing violence, graphic nudity, language and brief sexuality and the run time is 1 hour, 51 minutes. It opened in theaters on Sept. 10. Lynn’s Grade: B