Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Screenplay: Nicolas Winding Refn, Roy Jacobsen
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen (as One-Eye); Maarten Stevenson (as The Boy); Ewan Stewart (as The General); Gary Lewis (as The Priest); Alexander Morton (as The Chieftain); Jamie Sives (as The Son)
Synopsis: In ancient Britain, when the Vikings are being driven into the wilderness by the growing followers of Christianity, such a group of Christian warriors encounter the mute, hulking man named One-Eye (Mikkelsen), an escaped fighter for a pagan tribe who with a young boy join the warriors on a boat trip to take back Jerusalem. Able to see into the future, One-Eye is aware of the doom they are all drifting towards, starting with their way on the ocean being completely blinded by fog...
Nicolas Winding Refn is a curious modern day auteur, one I have not ever given a decisive opinion on but in hindsight to this review may grow more and more respect for finally. To give you the interest the man offers in his filmography, another film that could be covered in the future was the one that sabotaged his first attempt to conquer American due it's sad failure commercially, Fear X (2003) with John Turturro and music by Brian Eno, blatantly in debt to David Lynch to a possible flaw but an elusive creation that showed a unique filmmaking vision. His success, from the Pusher trilogy to Drive (2011), alongside his rollercoaster of a career, where after licking his wounds from the Fear X experience he even directed a Miss Marple one-off, makes him a fascinating character and his filmography itself is the same, continually subverting and playing with genre cinema in unpredictable ways. Out of what I've seen, if he becomes a great director for me it's not going to be because of his most well known film Drive, which feels generic compared to a filmography that includes the controversial follow-up Only God Forgives (2013), his unconventional biopic Bronson (2008) and Valhalla Rising itself.
An incredibly low budget mythical film whose surface appearance is that of a Viking movie, Valhalla Rising as it starts drastically contrasts from this with its minimalist tone. It takes on the nose with pride its artistic aspirations and pretensions. A film shot in the massive, full landscapes of Scotland but contrasted by the claustrophobic close-ups used for most shots of the actors. A spiritual journey to Hell but rather than Dante's Inferno it's a very small cast walking amongst mud sodden fields, the excessive violence of many of Refn's films contrasted here by an emphasis more on mood to dictate the narrative, the story told in many places through visuals only. Only Only God Forgives may have taken this film's tone fully rather than the others which change things around. Completely mute in the role of One-Eye, Mikkelsen as a living personification of brutality is also a soothsayer, his prophecies blood red flashes hazy at first to understand but ominous of what will come, Mikkelsen conveying as much as possible through only his body language as the dialogue spoken by everyone else is nearly obtuse, concise dialogue adding to the unnerving tension that seeps more and more into the film as the narrative goes along. The result is an art house genre film but the mixing of the genre qualities and the tones defined stereotypically as "art house" creates a blurred line between the two into uncharted territory. The vibe of the film's tone is comparable to Apocalypse Now (1979), where as the natives are completely unseen but completely threatening, the warriors fall apart and most of them go insane, reducing them less to holy warriors but scared animals.
One fact that shouldn't be ignored is the subplot of Christianity; set in the era where Christianity would eventually drive away the pagan religions, its yet fraught with conflict as the Christian warriors become disillusioned and broken down just from the prolonged, agonising boat trip in the centre of the film, fog blinding their way and undrinkable seawater all around them as they slowly go mad. As one suggests the young boy who tags along with One-Eye is responsible for the fog and should be killed, it's not said accusing the boy of being a demon or witchcraft being involved but in the tone of a superstitious pagan, the deconstruction and collapse of the Christian groups taking place as One-Eye stays back and only has to be involved if someone threatens him or the boy. Barring the few glimpses of giant crosses, the Christians are still new, still part of the old tribes as they're first seen with a group of completely naked women who've clearly been captured from warring with Vikings, the Christian cause to liberate the Holy Land of Jerusalem less the desire to preserve the message of peace in Christ's sacrifice for humanity but territorial. This could be seen as cheap, anti-Christian rhetoric but it should be remembered that Refn is Scandinavian, from the region where the Vikings would be his real ancestors and Christianity despite its later dominance still a foreign influence on the land as it would on Britain with its Celtic heritage. Subconsciously, even if it's by coincidence, the contradictory states of mysticism and religion without fully evoking them is central to the film, all boiled down to the only clear minded person, without doubt or conflict, being the mute beast of a man who can gladly go to his doom willingly and breaks peoples necks with the chain he's attached to.
A very low budget production, made around the time of Bronson, the small cast is dwarfed by locations which fill in the grandness required for the tone to work. Britain, bearing in mind my bias as a native, has incredible outdoor environments. Because of the visual age of such landscapes, you can still feel the history and mythology that has soaked into the rock faces, where the backbone of paganism and British mysticism can be felt and adds to the atmosphere of a film instantly if shot properly on camera. Even under grey skies, with the right mindset they can be powerful and vast in their scale and distance. Even when the Scottish locations masquerade for the landscape the group get to by boat, the advantage taken by the cinematography using them sets the methodical tone required perfectly.
The music by Peter Peter and Peter Kyed only gets to the post-metal guitars and tribal drumming you'd expect from a modern Viking film by the final act, but in general alongside the emphasis on visuals only, depriving viewers of obvious plot explanation, the music generates the needed emotional tone that the mere images may not have by themselves. When the score finally explodes into its most bombastic part its epic.
Abstract Spectrum: Expressionist/Mindbending/Psychotronic
Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): Medium
With clear influence from Werner Herzog and Terence Malick, Valhalla Rising nonetheless is its own film, the violent gore contrasting immensely from the minimalistic presentation. Its economic in this area which adds to its elliptic tone, the minimal adding to its unconventional tone as one is forced to experience the story from the characters' perspective rather than as an outside viewer. As the madness that inflicts the group takes place the film takes on a more editing heavy, chaotic tone when the unforeseen enemy appears and eyes are watching off-screen at the warriors. Because of the presentation the sense of building dread is pervasive and increases throughout the film, culminating into a finale that leaves the end on a sombre note.
It has been six or so years since viewing Valhalla Rising for the first time, and it's still as dynamic and impactful since that last time. While openly, brazenly, artistic it never becomes hollow and attempting to decorate itself in such art house tropes, making sure that everything done onscreen and in presentation is meant to build up the tensions felt by the characters. It's not a traditional Viking film, which would've disappointed some, but instead it's an incredibly alien experience like many of Refn's films.