Thursday, January 13, 2011

In Brief: VALHALLA RISING (2009)

Nicolas Winding Refn's Dark Age thriller is such a cruel picture that the hero is a murderous mute -- and they call him One-Eye! Need I say more? I suppose I should, since the film is probably only an accidental homage to Bo Vibenius's female-revenge extravaganza. If it's a conscious homage to anything it may be to Apocalypse Now -- think of this as Apocalypse Retro. It deals with Vikings, unrepentant pagans driven to the ends of the earth by the advance of Christianity. We find them in a desolate landscape with a prisoner in tow. This is the mute (Mads Mikkelsen), a sort of fighting slave with a high turnover rate of masters. For entertainment men match their might against his. They die. He snaps their necks with his chain, wrapping it around then running until he hits the end of his tether. Sometimes he has a rock handy to smash a skull with. He's getting tired of it; he's having visions. In a stream he finds an arrowhead. He uses it to unbind himself while in transit and kill his captors -- all save the boy who had fed him, who now chooses to follow him. Where else is he going to go? Home? He doesn't know where that is any more. Where's the mute going? He probably has a better idea of when than where.

Neck snapping, head cutting: One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) can do it all.

The unlikely pair stroll into a camp of raiders stocked with burnt corpses and naked enslaved females. These raiders are Christians; apparently they were raising funds to go on Crusade in the Holy Land. Judging "One-Eye" (so the boy now calls him, since "You have to have a name, and you've got one eye.") a tough customer, and unwilling to fight him, the crusaders invite him on board their boat. He and the boy accept. They seem to spend weeks adrift in a mist until the men feel accursed. Some want to blame the boy, but One-Eye isn't having that. But before things deteriorate further a taste of the water reveals that they're now upstream on the mainland somewhere. That somewhere, from the looks of things, seems to be North America, and the natives are not friendly. One by one the inadvertent invaders are picked off or disappear, while One-Eye has a dire vision of the sacrifice necessary to save the boy -- from what and for what, who can say?...

Valhalla Rising is stark stuff, its violence all the stronger (despite some poor CGI blood spurts) for being done on the scale of single combat rather than mass battle. The vast landscapes in either hemisphere are beautiful and dreadful at once, dwarfing the handful of actors trudging through them. If the boat ordeal reminds you of Apocalypse Now, the overall atmosphere is more post-apocalyptic. The object doesn't seem to be a recreation of history, but an evocation of man at the end of his tether. One-Eye's visions take the film into the realm of fantasy, but the fantasy is pretty limited in scale and scope. We don't see the Norse gods, nor do we get any evidence that Christianity has real power. So it's fantasy but not myth; the point seems to be to make poignant One-Eye's awareness of his fate. Mikkelsen's intensely stoic performance offers few openings for empathy, however. If we're moved, it's when we recognize the circumstances that will fulfill his final vision, why it will happen. His foreknowledge of his fate allows him not only to accept it, but to make an offering of it. The film's ultimate question may be: in such a world, what makes a meaningful death? That his final act is arguably the most Christian act in the film is an additional irony. Whether Refn could get the same effect without the selective spiritualism is debatable. Whatever you decide, Valhalla Rising is still an admirable effort with just about the right mix of grime and grandeur, violence and virtue. As arthouse action films go, it's pretty good.


Anonymous said...

I'm glad you finally had a chance to watch it. I also found it stark, brutal and foreboding; impossible to stop watching until the end.

wiec? said...

i really liked this movie too. maybe it was the way it was filmed or the soundtrack or just how quiet it was (not a lot of talking between the characters) i found it strangely hypnotic.

it's a movie i definitely want to watch again. if anything to pick up any nuances i might have missed the first time.

The Film Connoisseur said...

I watched this one recently and loved it, I loved the trippy nature of the film, visuals take over in many sequences..I loved how the character didnt say a word through out the whole film, yet his actions spoke louder then words.

Have you seen Bronson? Refn's previous film? Holy crap, that's his best film in my book! Highly recommend it.