Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Valhalla Rising” is a major league oddity, an abstract Viking epic with little dialogue and a ponderous pace. The film packs all the gore and brutality you’d expect, but in just about every other way it completely disrupts expectations. I appreciate that with “Valhalla Rising” Refn is aiming to deliver something more than a gorgeously photographed bloodbath, but there appears to be a lack of clarity and focus concerning what the extra element is. “Valhalla Rising” clearly wants to say something about the human condition or possibly religion, but sadly the specifics of its message are tricky to decode.
Having been taken hostage by a Nordic tribe, the mute One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) is forced to partake in barbaric gladiatorial combat for his captors’ amusement. Eventually breaking free, One-Eye teams up with a young boy Are (Maarten Stevenson), and promptly stumbles upon a group of Christian warriors. The band invites One-Eye to join them as they travel to fight in the Crusades, an arduous and soul destroying boat trip ensuing. When they arrive the landscape defies their expectations, madness and violence following as a consequence.
In a completely silent turn Mikkelsen is effective, strongly conveying a mood of mysterious darkness as One-Eye. Alongside Refn’s visual panache, it’s Mikkelsen who gives “Valhalla Rising” its finest asset, the actor carrying the absurd venture pretty far on the back of his talented chops. “Valhalla Rising” was obviously crafted on a modest budget, and so the filmmakers deserve major kudos for presenting the feature so beautifully. The misty landscapes of Scotland (where the movie was shot) combine nicely with Refn’s style driven approach to create a suitably dreamlike atmosphere. It’s an attractive looking affair, exuding technical proficiency and optical delight with every frame.
The movie is split into five chapters, although this feels like an unnecessary touch, simply on hand to further bolster a sense of superficial self-importance. Refn clearly has a desire for “Valhalla Rising” to be considered as cerebral fare, filling the picture with glacially paced existentialist twaddle. Whatever message “Valhalla Rising” is trying to purport is intensely muddled, it’s almost subtle to the point of nothingness. It’s a tough film to stick with; even at a sleek 90 minutes (85 minus the credits) “Valhalla Rising is a slog. Those looking for the sort of hardcore combat fuelled thrills of efforts like “300” will be disappointed; “Valhalla Rising” is an unstoppably languid experience.
The project is peppered with One-Eye’s surreal dreaming, an almost drug addled touch that adds nothing but further sensory overload. Refn gives the movie an edge via some unspeakably savage brutality, a horrifyingly graphic full frontal disembowelling is a particular highlight in this respect. I can’t accuse “Valhalla Rising” of being forgettable, it’s a definitively unique piece of art after all, but on the whole I can’t see much worth celebrating other than a robust leading performance and some dazzling visuals. I would advise potential viewers to approach this weird offering with a sense of trepidation, because it almost certainly won’t satisfy mainstream audiences.
director: nicolas winding refn
cast: mads mikkelsen, maarten stevenson, gary mccormack, and others
runtime: 93 min