After wading through the violent streets of Copenhagen with the Pusher trilogy, director Nicholas Winding Refn hands in a more meditative piece of work that also just happens to be incredibly violent.
Set somewhere around 1096AD, Mads Mikkelsen plays a one-eyed slave forced by a group of Pagans to fight for money across the Scottish Highlands. Seen as nothing more than an object by his captors, One-Eye (as he will later be dubbed) is an incendiary device waiting to go off. Finally finding an opportunity to unleash his furry, One-Eye murders his captors and escapes, only to be followed by the youngest member of the Pagans (Maarten Stevenson).
The boy and One-Eye develop a bond that isn’t close to being in the same stable as ‘father and son’, but it holds a smidgen of co-dependence. When the duo stumble across a group of Christians looking for a rumble with anyone who isn’t Christian, they’re invited to join the mob on their crusade to the Holy Lands. However, when things go awry, both the boy and One-Eye are seen as a curse sent to stop the Christians in their righteous mission.
Bereft of speech for the most part, Valhalla Rising feels surprisingly simple in its structure and visuals when stacked against the likes of Refn’s later work such as Drive or The Neon Demon. However, whilst its plot is as rigid as cobwebs, the film still manages to keep its audience at arm’s length for most of its runtime.
One-Eye is seen to be prone to visions and whilst the Christians’ course change halfway through the film – they end up in what appears to somewhere in America – could simply be an act of God, there’s also the suggestion it could also have been the act of a god. One-Eye could be, for all intents and purposes, an Old Norse Pied Piper leading the sinful and corrupt to their doom. For all their pomp and circumstance, the Christians are hardly the most pious of people. They bicker, they fight, and they rape each other just to gain the upper hand. Perhaps they deserve the punishment that they’re dealt by One-Eye.
On the other hand, One-Eye could just as easily be someone looking to escape their plight, leading him to passively follow those around him until he once again feels the need to escape. As the film moves forward, Refn suggests that One-Eye only has one real option in front of him and when it arrives, it’s both brutal and swift. Mikkelsen dominates the film with his stoic presence. Even when he’s befalling a group of soldiers in one go, his heart rate never seems to rise above a warm-up. It’s no wonder he was chosen to play Dr Hannibal Lecter later in his career.
Looping back to the visuals, Refn captures a beautiful melancholy in the Scottish landscapes that underlines the loneliness and lack of belonging that befalls all the film’s characters. Equally, these postcard moments help emphasise the shocking violence that raises its ugly head every now and then. The audience may be surprised to find themselves admiring a gorgeous backdrop before screaming, ‘he just disembowelled someone with his bare hands! WHY?! Why would he do that?’
Bleak, beautiful and liable to irritate some with its lethargic pace, Valhalla Rising highlights Refn’s desire to experiment with storytelling and setting. It’s a stunning piece of work and makes you wonder what he would have done with Agatha Christie’s Marple had ITV let him off his leash.
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