Denmark/UK | 2009 | Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Logline: A Norse warrior escapes being a fighting slave and joins a group of Crusaders on a grueling quest for the Holy Land.
Danish maverick, Nicholas Winding Refn, channels the poetic minimalism of Andrei Tarkovsky, the spiritual mysticism of Werner Herzog, and the violent surrealism of David Lynch into a dark and beautiful tale of degradation, emancipation, redemption, and resignation. Valhalla Rising is the journey of One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen), a mute Norse warrior, across the rugged landscape of the mind, body, and soul, toward his mortal destiny foreseen.
It is the Dark Ages, circa 1000 AD, in the misty highlands of Scotland, a terrain of majesty and desolation. One-Eye is a pagan’s slave forced by the chieftain, Barde (Alexander Morten), into fighting to the death for the amusement of his captors. He is very strong and adept and never loses, snapping necks, tearing jugulars, disemboweling his adversaries. By day he is thrust into the mud circle of wrath, by night he is chained inside a wooden cage. A young boy, Are (Maarten Stevenson) feeds him, observing the silent killer with fascination.
Through visions One-Eye has the ability to see into his own future. This enables him to break from his binds and slaughter the pagan enemies who’ve enslaved him. On his own, with Are following, One-Eye traverses the mountainside and encounters a clutch of Crusaders, Christian Vikings on route to The Holy Land. One-Eye is invited to join their mission, which he does warily.
Their boat is engulfed by fog and the journeymen become disorientated and confused. Eventually the mist clears and the men find themselves surrounded by the boreal forest, not The Holy Land. They are menaced, and the Christians believe they have entered Hell. One-Eye takes it all in his stride, using the Vikings’ psychological frailty as fuel for his own spiritual progression. They have reached New Found Land, and One-Eye embraces Valhalla.
Punctuated by chapters, I - Wrath, II - Silent Warrior, III - Men Of God, IV - The Holy Land, V - Hell, and VI - The Sacrifice, Refn, with co-screenwriter Roy Jacobsen, has constructed the narrative with very little dialogue, traveling a powerful visual arc aided by a magnificent and truly evocative score, courtesy of Peterpeter and Peter Kyed, and darkly vivid cinematography, courtesy of Morten Søborg. Refn composes many of shots as tableaux, with One-Eye’s visions saturated in a luminescent red. He inverses some images within the visions creating a sense of displacement; One-Eye’s profile reversed, the rippling ocean upside-down as a fluid sky.
Certainly the landscape is something to behold; filmed entirely in the formidable terrain of Scotland. Mikkelsen is quietly brilliant in his unspeaking role. All the support cast is solid. The costuming is very impressive, and the extreme violence is executed superbly. I have my reservations over the use of CGI bloodletting, but Refn carries it off okay, and he does use prosthetics in the right place - there’s an excellent hatchet neck wound on one victim.
The mood and tone is introspective, ponderous in its depth, the characters frequently musing, lost in thought, observing, scheming, then explosions of visceral, brutal violence. I’m reminded of Jim Jarmusch’s mutant Western Dead Man, a similar drifting, existential mood, a movie of moments, of ideas, of feeling, but Valhalla Rising is devoid of Dead Man’s sardonic and bitter sense of humour.
Infused with elusive, ethereal buoyancy, Valhalla Rising is a jagged gemstone glistening seductively in the abyss, an existential anchor being dragged through the seabed of time and space, it is a movie for acquired tastes, and certainly not for those with little patience. It resonates and rewards, but doesn’t suffer fools gladly. Refn has likened the cinema experience to that of an acid trip (there is even a scene involving the ingestion of a psychotropic drug), and says he was inspired by Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires, and by the curious discovery of a cairn of rune stones in Delaware.