Valhalla Rising

Dir: Nicolas Winding Refn

Rating: 4.0/5.0

IFC Films

93 Minutes

Vikings have always been a tough group for filmmakers. Most recently portrayed in glossy 3-D in Robert Zemeckis’ soulless Beowulf, Hollywood has been responsible for numerous Norse stinkers from Erik the Viking to The 13th Warrior. Luckily, Valhalla Rising has arrived with an entirely new spin on the subject.

Despite centering on a one-eyed gladiator (Mads Mikkelsen), Valhalla Rising does not give the sweeping Braveheart or Gladiator treatment to the Viking milieu where we focus on a noble, but flawed protagonist looking to avenge a murdered love. Rather, director Nicolas Winding Refn’s spare Kubrickian tones meld with long shots of stillness to create a film not unlike Terrence Malick’s The New World. Valhalla Rising begins with One Eye’s vicious escape from a band of men who have enslaved and tortured him. Hooking up with a party of Viking Christians on their way to fight the Moors in Jerusalem, One Eye and his company are blown off course and end up in an alien world, apparently North America. Once again, Valhalla Rising is no sword and sandals epic. Instead it is a meditative tone poem about madness and fate.

Valhalla Rising demands its viewers to dig beneath its nearly silent exterior to reach deeper meanings. The men begin to lose their sanity, first during a mist-enshrouded boat village and then in the strange New World. Is One Eye the harbinger of change, a shift from polytheism to monotheism or just a silent observer? As chapter placards indicate sections such as “The Sacrifice” and “Silent Warrior,” it is fully possible that One Eye has led the party not only into the mouth of madness, but hell itself as Refn strips away the dignity of his characters, reducing them to the primal urges that fill man.

The purpose of the figure of One Eye is the film’s central mystery. Is he an incarnate of Jesus Christ or just another godless heathen punished for his inability to recognize God? Mikkelsen isn’t telling, that’s for sure, as his character speaks not one line throughout the film. But his One Eye says volumes whether he’s disemboweling one of his captors alive or coolly observing the painfully photographed landscape of their mistaken landing.

Valhalla Rising plays out like a sweaty nightmare. Morten Soborg’s stark cinematography creates a hallucinatory setting like something out of an Alejandro Jodorowsky film and characters move in a syrupy slow motion punctuated with prophetic flashes of doom. Refn, who directed last year’s Bronson is not afraid to have long sequences where not much happens, letting the landscape speak for itself much like Nicolas Roeg did in Walkabout. But be warned, the film’s violence is extreme, especially in the film’s opening segments.

Much like One Eye’s mysterious journey to the New World, Refn frames Valhalla Rising as a voyage into the unknown. An antidote to the summer’s big budget paeans to special effects, Valhalla Rising serves as to remind us that small filmmaking is not only effective, but vital. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king and the same can be said for Valhalla Rising.

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