Even within Nicolas Winding Refn’s limited but quickly expanding filmography—films that profile masculinity serving to detail the violent nature of man—Valhalla Rising stands out as an extreme example of his chosen theme. The director of recent critical darlings Drive and Bronson outdoes himself here, creating the most blood-soaked, dirt-encrusted Viking tale I’ve ever laid eyes on. Not only did he swing for the proverbial fences when it comes to the filming of brutal acts, but oddly, he also chose to zig when his audience rightfully thought he would zag. The director’s rope-a-dope results in long breaks between violent acts, producing some of the most contemplative, esoteric cinema I have seen in some time. It’s like Werner Herzog and Terrance Malick locked themselves away in a cabin located in rural Montana, and put their heads together over a long weekend to bang out a script while drinking copious amounts of absinth and ingesting a powerful strain of LSD.
Valhalla Rising follows its hero, a perpetually chained gladiator by the name of One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen), a legendary killer who they say was born in Hell and was destined to spend his time on Earth being fueled by hate. Basically a gigantic scar, One Eye is a mute and his disfigurements are numerous and grotesque in nature. Deformed inside as well as out, he dwells in a silent world of rage; his only catharsis comes in the numerous bare knuckle brawls he is forced to participate in. One Eye dwells on the side of a mountain, exposed to the elements, locked in a wooden cage until its time for him to kill. Even during his fights his owner keeps him on a leash, one that is just long enough to allow him to fight off his attackers or possible hang himself. This twisted Viking warrior is such a nasty character that none of his prior owners could handle him for more than 5 years at a time, their souls couldn’t bear the savagery their eyes took in. All he has for company are his blood-red visions of the future; comforting, they are not.
One Eye’s owner is in the process of selling him; money is needed to repel the wave of invading Christians that have come to their land. Taking note of the weakness that this distraction brings to his master, One Eye waits for the perfect moment, then kills him along with his men, and sets off into the harsh wilderness with only his owner’s young son as company. They soon run into the aforementioned Christians who say they are venturing to the Holy Land with the goal of lending a hand in the Crusades. One Eye and the boy join them, board their boat, and shortly thereafter, the group rapidly loses their way as a dense fog sets in. The haze breaks after an interminable amount of time, and the men are startled to find themselves in a strange new land, one that only brings them death and madness. The Christians begin to question their faith—this has to be the homeland of One Eye, they tell themselves, a hell in which they will never escape.
Winding Refn’s Viking tale isn’t for everyone. The violence will turn most off, and those that can look past that trait still have to contend with a narrative that has no rhythm or pace besides its own. Most of the film takes on a dreamy, contemplative tone, forgoing dialogue and plot for an art-house romp with a heightened sense of late ’60s and early ’70s psychedelia punctuated with action set pieces that pulse with almost unbearable suspense. In other words, this is a film that is meant to be experienced, which in turn requires both careful attention and the utmost patience from its audience. Despite the graphic violence contained in the frames of this film, Winding Refn has managed to capture the ethereal beauty of the surrounding landscapes; the cinematography by Morten Søborg is extraordinary—especially during the last third of the film when the boat containing One Eye, the boy, and the wayward crusaders beaches on the sands of “the new world.” Mikkelsen also treats the viewer to a performance that commands attention, despite the fact that there isn’t a whiff of your typical dramatic motivation associated with his character.
And did I mention that this movie scared the crap out of me? Not in the same way a horror movie would, it doesn’t employ those types of conventions. It got to me in more of a “Jesus Christ, am I glad I was born when I was” fashion. Its always fascinating to me to see a movie capture a time and place that I wouldn’t last 5 seconds in, and this film certainly qualifies. In fact, not only would I not survive, I’m sure nobody alive today would have the testicular fortitude to live a week in these conditions*. The men detailed in this photoplay are cut from granite, drenched in blood, exposed to the elements 24/7, haven’t seen a bath since ever, and kill because, well, that’s what they have to do to survive. I work in a cubicle, can’t stand the sight of blood, and live in a townhome that offers shelter and entertainment that doesn’t involve disembowelment. Thank God for our modern lifestyle, right?
*Except maybe Ray Lewis.