Browsing Netflix last night we were reminded that we wanted to see Valhalla Rising (2009). It was streaming so we watched it. And I had the strangest dreams after. Nicolas Winding Refn directed a bizarre, moody little film; which reads like an Indie version of an Epic. I’m not wholly sure what to do with it.
Valhalla Rising, set in 1000 AD, is about a man (Mads Mikkelsen) who has been taken captive and is used as a fighting machine (ala Danny the Dog or Conan the Barbarian). He is One-Eye the — pagan?—not sure. One-Eye the Norseman? One-Eye eventually escapes and the only one he leaves alive is a young boy Are (Maarten Stevenson) who has been his caretaker of sorts. It is helpful to have Are along because One-Eye is mute. Also, with Are One-Eye is seen to be a bit more human. And who better than the boy to tell the Christian Vikings One-Eye is from Hell.
One-Eye decides to go with the Christian Vikings on their boat. As they sail toward the Holy Land to reclaim Christ’s land for him, they enter a heavy mist and even heavier air. When all clears they are in a strange land which they think maybe they can claim for Christ just as easily. One-Eye and the boy just want to get home, wherever that is supposed to be. But if home is Hell, they have arrived.
Valhalla Rising story-wise begins like Conan the Barbarian. Even the music is reminiscent. I was saying to Sean, “This is just like Conan the Barbarian.” To which Sean replies, “How can that be a bad thing?” I suppose it isn’t. The landscape is gorgeous. The fights are brutal/gorey. Mads is foreboding and avoids looking like a Neanderthal. Mads does the unsettling pretty well. I’m still trying to figure out how he could be so expressive in his part by not having said a thing, nor really change his facial expressions.
When I say that Valhalla Rising reminds me of Conan a thing it does better is relay time passing and the life of One-Eye in a nice series of glimpses. The collapsing of time has a dream-like quality that bleeds into the rest of the film.
The film moves slowly and quietly. There is very little dialogue, a few voice-overs, but I wasn’t minding the time until the end and I was wondering where this could possibly be going. There is no sense that this film can end happily, or with any clarity.
Once on the boat heading to Jerusalem, the film begins to channel the likes of the Werner Herzog Film Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972), a German film I was privileged to see in my Utopia/Dystopia in Film/Lit class. I wanted to gouge my eyes out Aguirre was so awful to watch. Fortunately, Valhalla Rising was less painful an experience, but it was just as ominous—characters getting picked off by unseen natives, the hallucinations…
The hallucinations: once on land they drink something psychotropic out of a gourd. What follows is only disorienting by their bizarre behaviors, both dark and violent (in one case). Each crew member (the ones left) participate in something uncomfortable to watch. And the shifting scenes capturing their antics begin to increase in cutting, increasing tensions. Any manipulation by the camera or in the lighting is subtle, no shaking or quick movements or use of a zolly. It is a relief for them to wake the next morning—though you feel like the boy Are emotes. They have to get away from the shore.
The boy Are does well for those critical of child actors. He is an odd figure, blonde headed and fair amidst all the big brutish and dark. You get that he was collected by the pagans along the way, perfect for getting close to One-Eye who is undoubtedly dangerous to the adults. One-Eye seems to have a tender spot for the boy, which comes in small revelations. The boy, unsure what to do otherwise, only seems to know that One-Eye is his best bet. How the boy ends up is only a guess—does he get home?—as is his longing?
When One-Eye and Are come across the Christian Vikings they wouldn’t mind having an extra sword-arm on their quest, but they are a bit concerned about this nameless, one-eyed, tattooed, mute who’s reputation proceeds him and the only explanation of his origins is associated with Hell. How can one not think about the “man with no name” of the spaghetti western?
I was hunting up reviews and the NY Times had a brief article in which the writer, Mike Hale, aptly described: “Valhalla puts a Sergio Leone hero in a Werner Herzog landscape. […] The Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen, star of Mr. Refn’s ‘Pusher trilogy of crime films, does his best Clint Eastwood as One Eye, a scarred, silent pagan killing machine who has blood-red visions of the future.”
Mads does Clint Eastwood well enough that Sean was thinking this morning that he might me a good casting decision for Roland in The Dark Tower Series in the offing. As for those “blood-red visions of the future.” They are appropriately atmospheric, cryptic, and most importantly gives One Eye more than just a role as a savage killer. He is also a guide. The visions give the sense that the film is going somewhere, however hellish. And yet, the audience just rides along with Fate as One Eye seems to do, as a “man with no name” seems aught to do, following the visions’ direction.
The vistas are beautiful, and vast. Like the Western, the landscape dominates and at times the characters are small on the screen. The camera work is lovely. While the Director is perhaps berated for being overly ambitious with Valhalla Rising, the cinematographer Morten Søborg can not be. I was flinching and covering my eyes and ears during the gorey parts, but otherwise was enthralled. Here I was thinking Apocalypto (2006), so painfully beautiful and yet so completely dark and violent. (note the similar movie posters when you follow the link.)
I cannot yet say what Valhalla Rising is about. There is a bit about fathers and sons. There is the aimlessly wandering orphan. Then, comparative religion. One-Eye as an apocalyptic figure, the wanderer who does what for the others in the film, I am not sure, except maybe send them to Hell where they very probably belong? One Eye is unflinching in meeting his Fate, he is an unchanging character, a constant. Is he the marker we measure the others against? What was with the character Barde who disappears only to return looking native and reading One-Eye’s mind? I thought we already believed the boy’s translation when he said they were all going to die. The Christian Vikings want to conquest fails, miserably, was One-Eye to make sure of it, returning to—? Stoic in his meeting of his fate…which is what?
I feel incapable of deciphering this apparently portent weighted film. Hell will rise up and swallow foolish conquistadors thwarting their quest for salvation while providing the primitive/pagan the glorious passing he deserves? Meanwhile there is the pale haired boy looking out to sea, alone. A remnant?
I sense, in watching, that I was supposed to be thinking, and yet I was really just interested in the spectacle. I felt like I was to await a glorious revelation and found myself still cringing over the hallucination sequence and wondering what are we supposed to do with that ending.
The film is shot in six chapters, with easy transitions. The chapter headings should help in the unfolding and resolution of the story: Wrath, Silent Warrior, Men of God, The Holy Land, Hell, The Sacrifice. They didn’t—and haven’t–yet.
There are storytelling devices and cues aplenty and I find the film thought-provoking in the sense that I feel provoked to thought, but nothing comes to mind. Maybe trying to consider the intellectual merits of a film is merely habit.
I am still adrift, wondering if any sense of catharsis registered or whether that was what I spent the night doing, trying to work out the film in my dreams…to no next-day resolution. Perhaps I am resisting the film, a reminiscence of earlier films that do not try to exceed their cleverness. Perhaps it will all come to me later in a red-painted sequence flickering at edge of screen. Or someone could comment on what they think Valhalla Rising is saying.
As it is, Valhalla Rising is still enjoyable. If you’ve a like for dark, patiently brooding film with little dialog and a great camera work… But if you’ve a revulsion of gore, the film is graphic.
Valhalla Rising reminds me of plenty of other films and I hope that it will one day soon remind me of itself. It is a quiet and disturbing hour and a half that I can’t say is wasted, and in which I can recommend to not watching before sleeping.
director: Nicolas Winding Refn
written by: Nicolas Winding Refn and Roy Jacobsen
cinematographer: Morten Søborg
editing: Mat Newman
starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Jamie Sives, Gary Lewis, Ewan Stewart, and Maarten Stevenson
90 minutes (English-speaking film)
Valhalla Rising Wiki, IMDb. Mike Hale’s NY Times review. : Conan the Barbarian (1982) dir. John Milius. Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972) writer/director Werner Herzog. Apocalypto (2006) dir. Mel Gibson.