Things that happen in director Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film Valhalla Rising:
A one-eyed warrior (let’s just call him One Eye) gets revenge against the dudes who have enslaved him (they’ve been making him fight chained-to-a-pole gladiator-style for kicks).
(This is, by the way, likely set in some Scandinavian country during the Middle Ages, in case you need some context).
One Eye blood-eagles a dude.
One Eye does not kill the slave boy who brought him food when he was chained up. The boy becomes One Eye’s mouthpiece, because One Eye never talks. The boy names One Eye “One Eye.” In the film’s only moment of humor, the boy says “You need a name. And you do have only one eye.”
For some unclear reason, One Eye and the boy team up with a band of Christian Vikings who are planning to invade the Holy Land. Maybe they join the Christian Vikings because the bastards who enslaved them were pagans? No. I don’t think that’s it.
The Viking ship gets lost in an existential mist. Despair ensues.
They arrive somewhere. Are they in the Holy Land? They’re somewhere.
There’s no food. Some Vikings dissent. People are flipping out. They want to go home. Some Lord of the Flies-type craziness kicks in.
Valhalla Rising rumbles to an intense, surreal climax, which I will not spoil here.
Things that don’t happen in director Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film Valhalla Rising:
Lots of talking.
Any appearance by a woman.
Explicit context or exposition with respect to setting, plot, or character motivation.
Coherent or unproblematic resolution, clear and defined conflict, epiphanies, or other moments of transformation. (Hang on, maybe there is an epiphany, but it’s likely the viewer’s, not a character’s).
Some more thoughts on Valhalla Rising, in a non-list form:
Valhalla Rising begins with a quotation asserting that before the introduction of monotheism, there’s just man and nature in the world. The film then goes about showing how cruel this relationship is and how the apparently assuaging claims of Christianity have no purchase on the world’s intrinsic, bloody Darwinism. There is no social contract in Valhalla Rising, only brain busting with axes, confounding weather, and a lack of easily available food. If there’s a religious commentary that links the fact that the Norse god Odin only had one eye to One Eye tenuously throwing in his lot with Christian marauders, I can’t find it. The film plays out like a version of King Lear where all sense of family, philosophy, and art has been stripped away, leaving only the cruel heath (and maybe the eye-gouging scene). Valhalla Rising may actually be closer to Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s version of Lear, with its unrelenting silence punctuated by moments of warrior violence. But hang on, Lear is a bad comparison altogether, isn’t it? Maybe better to say Valhalla Rising recalls Werner Herzog’s jungles and madmen, or Terrence Malick’s lonely vistas. But if Refn’s film recalls those greats, it also has a strong whiff of Jason Statham all over it. Not that its violence is cartoonish or that it’s a mere actioner, but it is a violent film that refuses to reflect on its violence, that posits violence not just as a necessity but as normal, as constituent of existence itself. In some ways the film recalls Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road, only more meandering and aimless. One Eye and the slave boy are not “carrying the fire.”
Valhalla Rising was shot in the gorgeous highlands of Scotland, and director of photography Morten Soborg evokes expressionist depth in this landscape, balancing the natural deep browns, verdant greens, and grays of the setting with rich blues and bursts of fireblood red. Peter Peter and Peter Kyed’s soundtrack sounds at times like an arty death metal band’s extended druggy tune up, but when it starts chugging, it really works. Mads Mikkelsen’s silent performance as One Eye will likely strike a cultish cord for those who like their badassery served up cold and mean. It’s more nuanced than it has a right to be in a film that is, like the aforementioned Herzog and Malick’s films (as well as maybe Wong Kar Wai), more of a mood than a narrative. Valhalla Rising is not a film for everyone; those who want the swelling moral clarity of say, Braveheart, need not apply, and even though I’ve name dropped Herzog and Malick in this review, Refn’s film is something else. Whatever it is, I enjoyed it very much.