Review: Brutal Brilliance of a Myth on Display in Valhalla Rising
by Jeremy Kirk
August 5, 2010
Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, the man who directed the Pusher trilogy and Fear X, is in the film making business. Nicolas Winding Refn, the man who directed Bronson and Valhalla Rising, the film we're discussing today, is in the myth-building business. The characters at the center of each of these films are strong, interesting, and absolutely barbaric, but that isn't what transcends them to almost myth status. What does transcend that status, however, is found in the story and the world they inhabit, both just as equally barbaric as the characters themselves.
With Valhalla Rising, Refn has crafted a work of brutal brilliance. The story and the man at the center of it are mysterious. Like this man, there doesn't seem to be any beginning to the story that unfolds. When it begins for the viewer, we are in the center of it. Our only way out is through, and the journey from one side to the other is filled with flawless imagery, hard-edged savagery (something not all that unfamiliar to Refn or anyone who has stepped into any of his worlds), and an amazing sense of reflection that digs deep within its main character.
That character is One Eye, played by Mads Mikkelsen, a warrior who finds himself prisoner of a Norse tribe. The tribe uses him in gladiatorial-style fights, vicious battles to the death that One Eye promptly ends in perfect yet cruel stride. It isn't before long that One Eye attempts to break free of his captors, and more brutality ensues. Fleeing into the Scottish highlands and aided by a young boy from the tribe, the warrior comes across a group of Christians who are preparing themselves to venture to the Crusades. The two join the group and what begins as a journey to a promised land becomes a passage into uncertainty, madness, and what the Christians believe to be Hell itself.
Broken into six chapters and running only 90 minutes in length, Valhalla Rising is a brisk tale. Nonetheless, Refn's style and the way he utilizes the settings and atmosphere create an epic tone to the film that seems to hang in the air itself.
This certainly isn't an epic film in the nature of its story. Nor is it a wall-to-wall action extravaganza. After the initial 15 minutes wherein One Eye kills many men in increasingly vicious and graphic ways (one involving a well-placed rope will be a favorite amongst the more bloodthirsty), there is a long stretch of calm where the Christians travel towards their hope of a Promised Land. It is at this point where Valhalla Rising may lose more casual movie watchers looking for something in the vein of 300 or Gladiator.
That isn't what you should expect with Valhalla Rising, a film that relies more on the subconscious nature of its central character than the viciousness of his physical attacks on other men. It is in this subconscious, in the very themes that run through the arteries that lead to Valhalla Rising's heart, where Refn is able to prove himself as an extremely gifted storyteller. Even with the lack of action or even dialogue, for that matter (One Eye is, in fact, a mute who utters not one word in the entirety of the film), Refn is able clench the viewers' interest. Valhalla Rising can't be considered a slow burn film. There is definitely a burning at hand, but it is very much an internal one, one that bubbles up from the inside and causes the eventual mindset of the group at hand.
This idea of One Eye not speaking is a stroke of genius, as well. As he does not speak, he does not tell the men anything about himself. They, and we, for that matter, are only able to create a past that suits the man before them. It isn't before long that they begin believing the boy's warning that One Eye is, indeed, from Hell and is driving them back to it.
More than Refn's psychological and intrinsically intense nature of the story, the visual tapestry at work in Valhalla Rising is impeccable, both in the film's opening and final third. He shoots the Scottish highlands where One Eye and the boy meet the Christian group with a coarse eye, pumping the fog in just thick enough that you have to pay close attention to the actors as to not confuse them. Without giving anything away about the last third, I will say the atmosphere grows a little clearer, and Refn is able to shoot mountain and forest areas of North America with stunning beauty.
Enough, though, cannot be said for Mikkelsen's portrayal of One Eye here. He has always been an actor with the look and flare of a villain. With his performance in Valhalla Rising, he clenches his place in the rankings of some serious anti-heroes who have come before him. It isn't unfair to compare One Eye to the likes of Eastwood's Man With No Name, even if there seem to be more layers at work with One Eye. The myth of both of these fictional characters is undeniable, and that comes from Mikkelsen's execution just as much as it comes from Refn's creation.
One Eye is truly a man of myth, and the journey he goes on in Valhalla Rising is not a quest. It is a venture out a Hell that may or may not exist in the outside world. Nonetheless, Refn convinces us there is a Hell living inside this man. It is never revealed, but it seems evident One Eye doesn't even know where he comes from, and it is painful to watch a man slowly fall into madness from the belief he truly has come from Hell.
Valhalla Rising is compelling story-telling at its most solid, a stylish, inward, almost inert work of art that grandly depicts the grand-less way in which true men of battle can lose themselves. To that end, it is a myth, and Refn depicts that myth with utter brilliance.
Jeremy's Rating: 9 out of 10