Valhalla Rising. 2009. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Screenplay by Refn & Roy Jacobsen; additional writing by Matthew Read.
Starring Mads Mikkelsen, Alexander Morton, Stewart Porter, Maarten Stevenson, Matthew Zajac, Gordon Brown, Gary McCormack, Andrew Flanagan, James Ramsey, Gary Lewsi, Jamie Sives, Ewan Stewart, Rony Bridges, Robert Harrison, Andy Nicolson, & Douglas Russell.
BBC Films/Belle Allee Productions.
Rated R. 93 minutes.
Seven years on, and still I’m unsure of what Valhalla Rising is saying, if anything deeper than skin deep at all. What I do know is this: Nicolas Winding Refn is an auteur, a visionary filmmaker who knows exactly what he wants. Even through the darker periods of his financial days, Refn was able to keep churning out films that were impressively engaging. As time went on his style became more focused, he honed his craft. And then Drive blew the collective film-going mind, the world over.
Before that there was Valhalla Rising, where more of that arthouse style for which he seems to aim started coming out, for the first time. Bronson had part of it in all that story’s weird glory, even Fear X was more artistically conceived and framed than his earliest works. But this Viking fantasy contains the first real inklings in Refn’s catalogue as director where his full-blown sense of authorship is spellbinding, to the level of a completely epic journey; I hate to use that word, epic, yet it’s exactly what constitutes the scope of this story.
What this film offers is twofold. We have a beautifully shot piece of cinema focused on a journey involving Vikings, Christians, Norse paganism, manifest destiny. Combine that with philosophical elements and an imagery-fuelled rumination on the nature of good v. evil, you’ve effectively described Valhalla Rising best advertisements.
Before I say anything else, I love, love, love Mads Mikkelsen. First just on a basic level he has one of those cinematic faces, an interesting one to be captured on camera. A striking look about him. Secondly, his acting ability’s outstanding. He has range to both be a hero and a villain, so interchangeably that it’s staggering at times. Look at how charmingly menacing his Hannibal Lecter was, how innocent and criminal Tonny in the Pusher movies comes across, or his character from The Hunt, a good man wrongfully accused of a devastating crime. Then compare any of those with his turn here as One-Eye, a hero in his own right if not a brutal one. What’s so powerful about this performance out of any of his is that there are no lines of dialogue. He is totally silent, barely even grunting. His silence transforms the character into an almost transcendent character – a metaphor. For what, I’m not entirely certain. Mikkelsen emotes so succinctly and vivid only through his face – and with one eye at that. Not many actors would be capable of the feat he accomplishes. I’ve always admired him, ever since his role in Pusher. With each passing film, Mikkelsen’s admirable qualities climb, as he proves his worth by falling into one magical character after another.
Through his semi-mythic life and adventures, in addition to his physical power and boundless strength, One-Eye elevates to a superhuman level. Or, he becomes more than human; god-like. Makes sense, as his namesake comes from the Norse god Odin, the Wanderer. Part of how the movie’s story came about is, apparently, that Refn was inspired by some runes – not sure if it was the Kensington Runestone or not, but either way. So it’s only natural Odin might play some sort of part in the story, whether One-Eye is meant to be him or just a symbol standing in for him: Odin is associated with many things, the runic alphabet being one. Having screenwriting partner Roy Jacobsen on this picture ensured a degree of loyalty to Norse paganism and similar subjects, as he’s keen on viking culture and all sorts of stuff.
The journey on which the Christians and One-Eye go is part history, part fantasy; men fresh off The Crusades meet with a Norse warrior on the Scottish Highlands. It’s a mix of religions and mythology, from Norse paganism to Christianity to pieces of mythology all over the place. What I enjoy is how there’s a palpable feeling of being steeped in both history and fantasy. We’re engaged in these visceral, physical fights starting from the beginning before being thrust into an incredibly dreamy/nightmarish world. This is a slow process, as One-Eye begins to have these visions. These are the first moments of the nightmares to emerge. Then once the Christians along with the boy and One-Eye make their way through the water, there’s this foggy, otherworldly sense of being lost; figuratively and literally. Like being stranded at sea while also lost between the various beliefs, of the varied endgames; as if stuck in Limbo. After the men actually find their course off by a tragic amount they land in America. Only to them, it’s Hell. Or is it Hel from Norse mythology? Works well with the Norse version of Hel, as depictions have seen the dead left with items to see them into the next world; once they arrive on the shores of America and get into the forest, they see corpses wrapped, headdresses left and other things. However, it can go both ways, as the Christians could see this new land like a tomb, greeted only by death. Regardless, the concept of what Refn is, I assume, trying to get it remains the same.
So what is that point? What’s Refn mean by all this?
Ultimately, in my opinion, the whole essence of the film is about belief, faith, the foundations of what we think we know is true in terms of history, as well as the nature of the good and of evil respectively. Underneath everything else, like the final section’s subtitle, it is about sacrifice. In that Refn explores a fantastical vision of the men who came before us, who tread over each walk of land that’s now covered in concrete and asphalt. Some of those men were good, or tried to do good. Others succumbed to the evil and baser instincts of the human soul. Notice that those indulging in their worst selves – murder, rape, manifest destiny at any costs – these are men who believe in a god, or gods, and they follow a religion. Yet One-Eye is merely a man, he is without religion and in the end represents the best of humanity by sacrificing himself to allow the boy to live. One of the largest points that I took away personally is the idea that religion, of any sort, corrupts absolutely in many cases, that religion does not determine good or evil but rather the actions of man, the actual physical events shaped by the hands of men are what makes someone good or evil. One-Eye has shades of Odin, though also incorporates the ideals of Jesus Christ by giving himself up as a sacrifice in the end. This mixing of different religious entities within the one character seems to help support the idea of no religion having the answer, no one being good or evil, certainly not in the archaic terms of Crusaders coming across Native Americans in the woods. All I can say for certain is that Refn serves up an appetising feast of themes to dine on.
I’ve watched Valhalla Rising enough now I can reel off a few theories. But this review contains what I hope are my best thoughts. Since 2009, I might have watched this over 20 times. Maybe more. Despite any of its vagueness or the fact it often defies concrete explanation, Refn has made a masterpiece; a flawless work of 5-star art. He challenges his own directorial abilities just as much as he offers a challenge to his audience.
I do love a movie that has a nice plot, one you can follow from A to B to C. In opposition to that I forever dig a film if it keeps me guessing, even if it’s frustrating, as long as the quest towards truth is interesting. Not only is this interesting, the look Refn gives the film along with the rest of the crew from costume designers to location scouts to the cinematography by Morten Søborg (In a Better World, Bleeder, Pusher) is astonishing. Dream sequences, gorgeously captured Scottish Highlands. This has it all.
Thank you, Mr. Refn. You are a fine auteur whose work is always offering something of substance for me to bite into. Many of us film fans are grateful for your willingness to be weird, to take chances, and to do the unexpected.