Spoilers follow for The Northman.
Watching The Northman and not wanting to re-create any component of its depiction of life 1,100 or so years ago would be understandable. Writer-director Robert Eggers makes it all seem pretty bleak, whether you are royalty on an island near Scotland (you could be assassinated for your throne), a regular person just scrabbling by in Rus (Viking berserkers could raid your village at any point), or a farmer trying to make a go of it in Iceland (the weather and terrain are unforgiving).
Eggers and co-writer Sjón never ameliorate the brutality and ruthlessness their characters need to survive these conditions. (As Vulture’s Alison Willmore wrote in her review, “Relatability is the last thing on The Northman’s mind … Its most notable quality is the way it refuses to bend its characters to the present, preferring instead to make them as alien in their perspective as possible.”) You can root for Alexander Skarsgård’s Prince Amleth to get revenge, but you do have to accept the filicide, parricide, and incest that come along with it. The Northman has it all!
But there is one element of The Northman that does skew modernistic, and it’s one you would see in any good ol’ rom-com, horror, or thriller: the haircut as transformation! It’s a contemporary device beloved by a wide range of protagonists: Mia Farrow and her pixie cut in Rosemary’s Baby, Julia Roberts’s on-the-run law student hiding her signature fiery hair in The Pelican Brief, Robin Tunney giving herself a buzz cut in Empire Records. And throughout The Northman, defining events or major upheavals in Amleth’s life are marked primarily through his hairdos. So which of these looks is right for you? Let’s discuss.
Prince Amleth’s pageboy
When we meet Amleth, played in the character’s youth by Oscar Novak, the character is rocking a slightly overgrown, thematically appropriate pageboy. It’s fairly adorable and works well with the character’s innocence, which hasn’t yet been shattered by watching his uncle, Fjölnir, assassinate his father, Aurvandil War-Raven (Ethan Hawke), and make off his with mother, Queen Gudrún (Nicole Kidman). The cut seems as if it would require some regular maintenance so the bangs don’t get too long, but the fur cap proves the look does accommodate accessories.
Head-banging berserker length
Have you considered pledging yourself via chanted fireside ritual to the Norse god Fenrir, a chained wolf who eventually breaks free during Ragnarok and wages all kinds of mayhem? If so, you probably have more on your mind than trimming, deep conditioning, and otherwise maintaining your hair. You’re going to let that coif get wild, which leads us to Amleth in berserker mode. After running away from Fjölnir’s death squad, Amleth is found by Vikings and trained to be a warrior who raids villages, grabs spears out of midair and throws them back at his attackers, and stands by as women and children are sold off and killed. This hairdo screams “My life has been taken from me and I am fueled by rage and vengeance,” so maybe keep that in mind if you were to pursue. But again, accessories! Looks good with both a minimalist hairband and a maximalist wolf’s head!
The impulsive “going undercover” chop
In the years after Amleth leaves his familial home, he adopts the mantra “I will avenge you, Father. I will save you, Mother. I will kill you, Fjölnir,” which guides him so forcefully that when he learns from another berserker that Fjölnir was defeated by Norwegian forces and fled to Iceland to establish a new homestead, he abandons the warrior sect immediately and goes undercover to infiltrate his uncle’s farm. Which calls for a makeover. It takes some effort since the transformation involves stealing a dead man’s clothes, branding himself with a slave’s mark, and cleaving his hair into a shorter, shoulder-skimming chop. I am not sure The Northman actually provides a narrative reason for this haircut — people besides berserkers had long hair, too, no? — but it’s the first inclination that Amleth is edging closer to his old self and to the mission he thinks he must fulfill. This is basically the ancient equivalent of giving yourself bangs as a fresh start, but I must warn that unless you have Skarsgård’s particular bone structure, tread lightly.
Amleth’s back, all right!
Amleth doesn’t half-ass anything over the course of The Northman, which means that, somewhat counterintuitively, he’s the hardest-working slave ever owned by Fjölnir and his son Thorir (Gustav Lindh), who oversee (read: abuse) the workers responsible for building the family’s new farm, home, and temple. (Truly wild that Gudrún, herself a former slave and now married to Fjölnir, is totally fine owning other slaves, but I guess that goes back to that whole “film providing its characters with no sense of modern empathy, and that’s fine” thing.) Amleth carries, lifts, and plows more than anyone else to gain the family’s trust and kicks ass at the knattleikr game by protecting Gudrún and Fjölnir’s son, Gunnar (Elliott Rose). Skarsgård does well with the character’s daytime ambiguity (tight-faced, affectless) and nighttime plotting (observant, physically lithe). And when he does so well that Thorir promotes him to an overseer role and allows him to take a wife, Amleth marries fellow slave Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), a Slav witch who joins him in his quest to kill Fjölnir and claim his revenge.
It’s almost celebratory, then, when Amleth cuts his formerly messy hair into a cleaner, boy-band-reminiscent bowl cut that gleams in the moonlight, has nice bounce and body, and moves as Amleth does. He’s in love! He’s so close to fulfilling his quest! For when you realize that your mother is your betrayer, or when your blood-seeking sword needs to feast upon an enemy’s heart, or when you decide to take on all your uncle’s men so your romantic partner can be set free — consider the bob Leonardo DiCaprio perfected in Romeo + Juliet and Titanic and that Amleth makes his own. (It is, in fact, making a comeback.)
Remember that whole “your fate is set and you cannot escape it” thing that Amleth is dealing with as an adult in The Northman? It comes to full fruition in the film’s final act, in which Amleth — with the new knowledge that Olga is pregnant with twins, including a daughter who will become a “maiden king,” or queen, in her own right — realizes that he can’t leave Iceland to pursue a new life. Instead, as both the shaman Heimir the Fool (Willem Dafoe) and the Seeress (Bjork) told him, his future is already decided, and it includes a duel against Fjölnir at the Gates of Hell. That certainty brings a certain amount of “Fuck it!” freedom, and it allows Amleth to let his hair get shaggier and his beard longer. His mop is now the closest his hair has been to his childhood pageboy, and there’s a full-circle sense here given how Amleth started this journey. Have you decided to venture into a live volcano to fight your uncle and stepdad in order to avenge your father, who might have been an asshole but to whom you swore a lasting oath and for whom you shed your last teardrop? These things are complicated! Commit to a haircut that requires no styling product except maybe the blood of your enemy! It seems as if there’s quite a lot of that to go around in The Northman.
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