In the historical revenge saga The Northman, Alexander Skarsgård, as the warrior prince Amleth, carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. If you've seen the film, or even its marketing, you'll know that I mean that almost literally. Outside of Schwarzenegger in his Conan-y prime, has any other movie lead displayed the kind of jaw-dropping musculature that Skarsgård does in this latest Robert Eggers outing? Beyond his upper arms, washboard abs, and body-fat percentage that has to be in negative numbers, the performer appears to have had 50-pound sand bags surgically attached to his shoulders. And when he's in battle, which is much of the time, Amleth's expression is generally either one of unstoppable determination or, when howling in a bone-chilling baritone, murderous rage. This guy looks ready to rip your leg off and beat you to death with the wet end.
Yet despite his bulk and anger issues, Skarsgård's Amleth is also shockingly lithe and quick on his feet. In one sequence of the Viking and his fellow marauders being waylaid by airborne spears, Amleth gracefully ducks out of the way as one goes whizzing by, and catches another in his hand before immediately hurling the weapon back from whence it came. Plus, just to make his contradictions complete, the dude is sensitive. Amleth may have no compunction about wrenching a man's heart out of his chest and brandishing the organ in front of the victim's father. But he's remarkably deferential, even courtly, in the company of the pretty blond he pines for, and at the end of the day, Amleth's bloodthirsty rampages are really only conducted out of love for his mom.
In short, Amleth should be a ludicrous role, if not an impossible one – even for an actor as wily and intelligent as Skarsgård. But damned if he doesn't pull it off. And damned if writer/director Eggers doesn't pull off The Northman, a period action drama with supernatural leanings that's five times bloodier than Braveheart, nearly as nutty as The Green Knight, and just as divisive as you'd expect from the filmmaker whose two previous features were the talking-goat freakout The Witch and the two-man fever dream The Lighthouse. At the unexpectedly packed Friday-afternoon screening I attended, most of the patrons seemed to watch the movie in a state of rapt, hypnotized silence, at least when they weren't wincing from the viscera and the breaking of taboos. (The woman two seats away from me moaned “I don't want to see that!” not after one of many beheadings, but during a kiss.) Despite the inherent seriousness, however, a significant portion of the crowd giggled at every possible opportunity – though I guess that was bound to happen in a work boasting a nude brawl on the edge of an active volcano, to say nothing of the sight of a shrieking Valkyrie with braces on her teeth. (I've read that those braces were faithful to Norse legend, but historical fidelity doesn't necessarily make the image less silly.) As with Eggers' other endeavors, you'll likely either love his latest or loathe it. And you'll probably lean more toward loving it if, like me, you have a particular fondness for Hamlet.
Oh yeah, did I mention? Although it boasts an original script co-written by Eggers and Icelandic poet Sjón – the latter of whom co-wrote last year's deeply disturbing Lamb – The Northman is based on the legend of Scandinavian prince Amleth, a tale already centuries old before Shakespeare usurped it for his classic tragedy. (The Bard obviously didn't try to be circumspect about his inspiration, as he basically just scooted the “h” to the front of the prince's name.) Consequently, despite the complexities within, Eggers' ultimate narrative here is Hamlet-simple: A young man's uncle murders the boy's father and marries his mother, and acts of vengeance ensue. Instead of being trapped in Elsinore, however, The Northman's tortured protagonist flees his kingdom as a child and is taken in by a group of Viking berserkers, after which he spends decades pillaging the territories and thirsty for vengeance before fate leads him to his newly disgraced uncle Fjölnir (Claes Bang), his mother Gudrún (Nicole Kidman), and their son Thorir (Gustav Lindh). It's not the cheeriest of family reunions.
In Eggers' hands, though, it is a fiendishly gripping one. While his previous features were largely subtle until, toward their climaxes, they very much weren't, The Northman is horrifically in-your-face almost from the get-go, and a maximalist approach appears to benefit the director just as much as a minimalist one. Amleth's and his fellow Vikings' early attack on a village is nightmarish for its staggering violence and cruelty, and with the savagery meted out in a series of steady tracking shots with few obvious edits, it's made more appalling by Amleth's apparent nonchalance as he blithely passes the berserkers in their acts of raping and killing. (Amleth has seen, and participated in, this sort of thing so often that it no longer registers.) Yet Eggers' uncharacteristic and impressive “go big or go home” approach is evident throughout: in the travails of the slave brigade Amleth surreptitiously joins to gain direct access to Fjölnir; in the ancient Nordic ball game of knattleikr, a skull-cracking “entertainment” that ends in a hideous death; in the broadly mystical appearances of Björk's Seeress and Ingvar Eggert Sigurösson's He-Witch and the fossilized head of Willem Dafoe. While nothing in The Northman is quite as trippy as, say, those roving naked giants in last summer's The Green Knight, just about all of it is thrillingly unsettling, and that's well before the movie finally grants a showcase scene to Kidman, whose unanticipated ferocity erases all memories of her Lucille Ball in about three seconds flat.
Amazingly, though, Eggers' outré exercise also succeeds in being disarmingly tender – at least, you know, until the next barrage of impalements kicks in. If a scene of belching, flatulence, and drug-fueled hallucinations can be deemed lovely, Ethan Hawke (as the doomed King Survandill) and Oscar Novak (as the pre-Skarsgård Amleth) deliver one, handily establishing the father and son's deep love and sense of duty. (Like nearly all of our initial information regarding the characters, ideas about the king's morality will come to be deeply questioned.) Although their union tends to slow down the film's momentum in ways that many viewers might find irritating, Skarsgård develops a moving romantic rapport with Anya Taylor-Joy's sorceress and slave Olga. I, for one, was grateful for their time together, as it allowed me to catch my breath while ruminating on what stunningly beautiful kids that couple might parent.
And during those moments in which Amleth isn't resembling Mark Ruffalo's Hulk minus the GCI, Skarsgård is able to soften his features and suddenly look every bit like the heartbroken pre-teen whose unspeakable trauma sets this inevitable tragedy in motion. Björk's Seeress tells Amleth early on that he'll shed only one more tear before his demise, and while he restrains himself admirably, the actor's naked emotionalism suggests that this warrior's tear could fall well before the end credits roll. The dialogue is frequently too prosaic and a handful of the Nordic accents sound dangerously close to Gaga-in-Gucci “Italian” – and yes, there's a Valkyrie with braces. I still had an utter blast at The Northman. Eggers' third feature may be madness, yet there is method in't.
THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT
Poor Nicolas Cage. That's kind of the plot of writer/director Tom Gormican's new action comedy The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, which casts Cage as a depressed, career-stalled version of himself who travels to a remote island and becomes a bumbling version of himself in the Hollywood-blockbuster mode of Con Air and The Rock. Though the results are overly busy and a tad lackluster, it's a pretty ingenious concept, Gormican sustains a mostly upbeat spirit, and our star is clearly having a grand time simultaneously doing his thing and a parody of his thing in his first mainstream comedy in what feels like forever. But still: Poor Nicolas Cage. He works his tail off in an entertainment specifically designed for him and tailored to his talents … and his movie still winds up being stolen by Pedro Pascal.
This is in no way Cage's fault. Though Massive Talent (co-written by Kevin Etten) is basically a one-joke affair, that joke is a solid one, and allows its lead plenty of opportunities for cheeky self-satire that Cage makes a full meal of. He's humble, self-effacing, yet slyly self-promoting Nick – the one eager to spontaneously read for a role (complete with feral, fully memorized monologue) and opine that Captain Corelli's Mandolin was severely underrated. He's over-the-top action-stud Nick from his late-'90s/early-'00s heyday, screaming at high decibels while firing pistols and traversing perilous curves on mountaintop roads. He's way-over-the-top Nicky Cage from the era of Vampire's Kiss and Wild at Heart, the de-aged tyro complaining to his older self that he's lost his edge and is no longer, in the floppy-haired dynamo's words, “Nick f---i-i-i-i-in' WHOOOOO!!! Cage!” (Adaptation is one of Cage's few film credits not name-checked here, but it was a kick seeing the guy effectively play twins again.) Through the course of Massive Talent, there's no hint of the dramatic depths Cage is capable of, and that he reminded us of in last year's Pig. But there also doesn't need to be, as depth, here, would just get in the way of the fun. Happily, Cage as Cage(s) provides all the guilty-pleasure fervor, apoplexy, ridiculousness, and nasal whine we've come to revere him for – and a good thing, too, given how underwhelming most of the other performers are. (Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz are atypically dull as hapless CIA agents; Sharon Horgan and Lily Sheen are afterthoughts as Cage's “real life” ex-wife and daughter; Neil Patrick Harris cashes a paycheck as Cage's smarmy agent.)
Yet here's the thing: Cage still gives us exactly what we expect. Pedro Pascal, in contrast, gives us something we had no business expecting. While I haven't come close to catching all the titles on Pascal's film and television résumé, there aren't exactly a lot of lighthearted offerings included. In Gormican's film, the actor is so light he practically floats. Playing the unabashed Cage worshipper Javi Gutierrez who offers the icon a million dollars to attend his birthday party (and hopefully read and agree to star in the movie he's written), Pascal's most frequent expression is a gaze of besotted, childlike wonder, with his shining eyes and mile-wide grin suggesting a six-year-old who's just had a personal audience with Santa. Pascal has about a dozen variations on this endearing look, and even when the plotting implies that Javi is, in fact, a murderous drug runner, the super-fan can't get enough of Cage, and the feeling proves to be mutual.
The reciprocal bromance that develops between the two is the sweetest, most winning element of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, and I would have been completely content if Gormican and Etten had ditched all the perfunctory CIA nonsense and merely gave us 105 minutes of Cage and Pascal tripping on acid and swapping loafers and hanging out in the Nicolas Cage museum that Javi lovingly curates. (I desperately wanted more time to focus on the tchotchkes, primarily in the hopes that Cage's false hand from Moonstruck or Hawaiian shirts from Raising Arizona would make an appearance.) Offering little in the way of laughs but loads in the way of smiles, this Nicolas Cage comeback – “Not that I went anywhere” – is a worthy vehicle even if it's not everything you hope for, and even if its second banana proves more memorable than the tasty fruit loop at its center. Sorry about Pascal's act of screen larceny, Nick. Maybe you can guest on The Mandalorian and return the sabotage.
THE BAD GUYS
Not that this should be any impetus for childless adults to see it, but in The Bad Guys, Sam Rockwell contributes a vocal portrayal that I can only describe as elegant.
A Dreamworks Animation comedy inspired by Aaron Blabey's children's-book series, director Pierre Perifel's film finds Rockwell voicing Mr. Wolf, the head of a notorious team of robbers that, Reservoir Dogs-style, includes Mr. Snake (Marc Maron), Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina), Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson), and Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos). Despite being denied the proper comic material that would make their invisible presences soar, those latter four actors sound genial and peppy enough, and they do the requisite amount of screaming to keep their young viewers' attention. Rockwell, though, actually gives a performance. A practiced smoothie whose rhythms subtly change depending on which figure he's speaking with, Mr. Wolf feels like a fully fleshed-out (cartoon) creation, and Rockwell lets intriguing hints of exhaustion and self-doubt creep into his characterization even when launching into a charm offensive – “the Clooney” – opposite Zazie Beetz's foxy fox. There's nothing remotely surprising about the storyline that finds its titular bad apples discovering their inner goodness. But it was a treat to listen to Rockwell regardless … even if the seven-year-old friend who chaperoned me really only seemed to enjoy the butt jokes.
You couldn't blame her. Although no one would ever accuse The Bad Guys of being sophisticated, its gags, for the most part, were more cerebral and less pun-centric than works of this kind generally are. (Sadly, they still weren't very funny.) And while I appreciated that Perifel's feature-length debut actually looked like a real, impressively lit movie, I'm not sure that noir-esque color schemes and off-kilter camera angles are what the kids today are clamoring for. My young pal and others of her age range, however, certainly appeared to like the comparisons between a guinea pig's precious meteorite and an enormous posterior, and the sight of animals getting caught in their underwear, and especially the billowing clouds of green that bathed the film every time Mr. Piranha farted. Not so long ago, prior to having an occasionally available pre-teen accompany me to these things, I railed against the prevalence of scatological humor in animated family comedies, effectively bitching, ad nauseam, “Our kids deserve better than this!” I still think they do. But if a few toots and fannies can keep children moderately invested while we elders find amusement in a furry Sam Rockwell in a fedora, I suppose it's win-win for us all.
Last summer brought with it the debut of Annie Murphy's AMC series Kevin Can F**k Himself, a dark comedy about a smart, beautiful woman whose life is made a wreck, per the standard of innumerable sitcoms, by the unappealing, obnoxious, clueless boor she's married to. I thought it was an inventive, reasonably absorbing show with a terrific central performance, but I can't say I'd given it much residual thought until this past weekend's Unplugging kept accidentally bringing it to mind. If you haven't heard of director Debra Neil-Fisher's new screen comedy (and given its domestic box-office haul of roughly 20 grand – that's right, 20 thousand, not million – you may easily not have), it's ostensibly about a married couple that, with the husband believing them to be over-reliant on their electronic devices, takes off for a slapstick-ready weekend getaway sans phones and laptops. But what the film was really about, for my money, was the crushing, humiliating unfairness of the gorgeous and game Eva Longoria being stuck with a spouse played by Matt Walsh, who was twice Emmy-nominated for his work on Veep but who turns out to be a soul-sucking black hole of charisma when fronting a movie. At least this movie.
From the start of this noxious toss-off, Walsh's Dan is the unmitigated hero: He's the one who worries for his family's over-reliance on tech; he's the one sensitive enough to heed the final “Live life to the fullest!” words of a soon-to-be-departed friend; he's the one who initiates the couple's device-free vacation in the country. Longoria's Jeanine, meanwhile, is the über-driven, career-obsessed shrew who can't let her iPhone rest for 10 seconds, and who chides her husband for his home employment as the entrepreneur behind a modestly thriving hot-sauce company. For 90 of the longest minutes I've endured in ages, mopey, put-upon Dan unconvincingly tries to look on the bright side while Jeanine searches in vain for a signal, and even when the guy does something inarguably stupid to worsen their already-dire straits, he waits to tell his wife about it until she's 20 seconds into the act of fellating him.
This is pure caveman comedy. Yet it might not have been so wretchedly insufferable if the script by Walsh and Brad Morris had provided even one decent joke, or if the reason for the getaway town having no connectivity were in any way plausible, or if co-star Lea Thompson were asked to do anything more than play second fiddle to a raccoon. In the post-pandemic era, studios appear to be getting chooiser about which films actually merit big-screen releases, so it's been a while since I've actively hated anything at the cineplex. I ha-a-a-ated Unplugging, and kind of hated Walsh for appearing so wholly disinterested in the results as both actor and writer. I won't go so far as to say that Matt can f**k himself. But while watching his movie, I sure was thinking it.