Review: Brutal Brilliance of a Myth on Display in Valhalla Rising

August 5, 2010

Valhalla Rising

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

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I saw this at TIFF last year and agree with what Alex wrote about it at the time. Intriguing, but near-incomprehensible and ultimately disappointing.

Shane on Aug 5, 2010


Brilliant?! You just called Valhalla Rising BRILLIANT?! You've got to be kidding me... This is just a joke, right? I saw this film at the Toronto Film Fest last year and hated it, absolutely hated it. I mean, this was probably the worst movie of 2009 (for me) and I can't even begin to describe how painful it was to sit through even 90 minutes. I would rather sit through the Cannes Palme d'Or winner Uncle Boonmee than watch this again, and I walked out of that when I saw it! Valhalla Rising was the most dry, unexciting, waste of celluloid I have dared to watch in a long time. You're right about one thing - there was no talking, the WHOLE movie. I think Refn has NO sense of storytelling because he just shot a bunch of random scenes, without dialogue (or a script?), and slapped them together hoping someone would look at it and say "oooh that was brilliant" when it's really the most vacant "film" I've seen. I'm trying not to be overly harsh, but I am baffled you even considered calling this film "brilliant." It was my least favorite film of 2009 (when I saw it) and deserves no higher than 1 out of 10 (for Mads Mikkelsen's performance and that's it).

Alex Billington on Aug 5, 2010


I'm with Jeremy Kirk on this. I saw this movie 3 or 4 months ago. It's amazing. It's different and strange but for me it really made sense. It's a dark, beautiful movie. The photography, the way it's shot, almost like paintings. Mads has a great performance. Looks like some Lynch movie about Norse mythology… I understand that for many this is out of range but everyone should give it a try. Only 90 minutes...

moonscar on Aug 5, 2010


I enjoyed the movie....Alex isn't a fan that is o.k. let him praise TRON with his geekiness. I thought the movie was worth watching and a slow burner. Alex I can understand why you are so harsh on the film, the film isn't for everyone.

dee on Aug 5, 2010


rofl, jokes? i'm really wanna see this now with the some of the completely opposite reviews. I'm also kinda curious now to what both of you and Alex thought of Miracle at St. Anna's.

lego on Aug 5, 2010


Haha... there's nothing quite like watching Alex ragepunch someone for having a contrary opinion. Magnificent.

Seward on Aug 5, 2010


you know, alex - your reaction here is exactly how i felt after i endured avatar. all i could think was: this is the movie that alex and ethan raved about in their reviews? i guess now you know how i felt. that's the great thing about movies - there's something for everyone and we all see films differently!

beavis on Aug 5, 2010


I think I'm going to have to check it out now. Most of the critics over at Rotten Tomatoes seem to dig it and to me it looks interesting. I don't really care if there is any dialogue just as long as the pictures tell somewhat of a story and judging by this review, it does. Thanks Jeremy

tkaihea on Aug 5, 2010


My 2 cents. Watch the first 10 minutes of the movie, eject disk, enjoy the next 2 hours of your life which would have been wasted by watching bleak artsy shots of men walking around, boating around, and sitting around.

D on Aug 5, 2010


^Yeah, Alex doesn't dig art, only CGI. I could see how "Citizen Kane" would make him want to blow his brains out.

graffiti bandit on Aug 6, 2010


#10 (and others) - Uh I'm sorry, but just because I wrote a negative review for a movie I genuinely hated doesn't mean I "only like CGI" and not art. First off, if you've read ANY of my film festival coverage, you'd know that I see a lot of indie "art" films and love them, things like 500 Days of Summer, Inaritu's Biutiful, even that British film Fishtank from last year. I truly hated Valhalla Rising and consider it one of the worst movies of 2009 and I'm sorry if this makes you all think that my opinion is crap. It's just one film and it's one that I hated so much I had to be vocal about, but I'm pretty sure that's truly no reason to disqualify and/or make fun of my opinion on all movies.

Alex Billington on Aug 6, 2010


Come on guys, I thought everybody supposed to have their own opinion, you can only be king of your own taste.

Me on Aug 6, 2010


I'm with ya here Alex, I watched it once and hated it and then was so baffled by people liking it that I had to try again, but couldn't even make it halfway. It's so boring and makes absolutely no sense. I guess it's only for hipsters that know what "true art" is. ...I absolutely hate it when people attack someones character for their opinion and immediately switch to judging them because they don't see things the same way. He's saying he hated it and you're saying you loved it, so why not talk about why by referencing specific examples from the film rather than attack his overall critiquing ability?

peloquin on Aug 6, 2010


Alex no one is judging your taste because I agree with many movies you have watched, especially the Indie one's. It is obvious you cannot stand Valhalla Rising. It is your choice for the Razzie no doubt about it:) Mine is still the Bounty Hunter:)

dee on Aug 6, 2010


Alex, I have read many of your opinions of film, and yours on this one is simply put like this: You didnt get it. This film is a modern masterpiece. It might be a required taste, but maybe one day you can go back to it, and hopfully your score of " 1/10 " will go up abit. Wondering if this system allows you to give " 0/10"-and if you would if you could ? 🙂 (if this shows twice, its cuz of some error)

David Banner on Aug 6, 2010


all of these comments piss me off.

DoomCanoe on Aug 7, 2010


I like Alex's posts.

eric on Aug 7, 2010


I can't say i "enjoyed" this film...but on bluray it does look beautiful...and i found it strangely hypnotic. I actually enjoyed "the making of" doc thats on the disc that shows what the crew had to endure to reach some of the locations. The small crew had to trek for miles in freezing and wet conditions with heavy equipment in order to get some of those stunning shots of the Scottish Highlands...and i think it paid off. At least its original filmaking and not crammed full of bullshit CGI like a G.I Joe or 2010!! Its a bit too arty for my tastes....and yes i would prefer some dialogue! or perhaps a bit of a plot....and the way it was marketed in the UK suggested it was all out Viking warfare (all of which begins and ends in the first 10 mins..) but i think it has its place in the vault.

vegasdanny on Aug 7, 2010


#10 do you really think CGI isnt art? do you think pandora was created by pushing a red button on some 200 thousand dollar machine? You really need to research what goes into making top cgi movies. Finally saw this movie today. And although it was not AS GOOD as jeremy says, it was most definitely NOT as bad as said by Alex. I felt the visual and editing style really put u right there with the characters. But i guess this really is one of those movies that some people might not like and others totally adore. And seriously The Worst Movie Of 2009??? Have you really forgotten All About Steve and Street Fighter. This movie should probably get an Oscar compared to those.

Logan on Aug 7, 2010


I enjoyed this movie while pressing the FF button, then I even enjoyed more while erasing it from my home media hard drive.

Jones on Aug 8, 2010


For all the nice ambient music and beautiful scenary... It was just plain boring

moif on Aug 8, 2010


First off, Fish Tank, 500 Days of Summer, and Biutiful don't rank anywhere near the type of arthouse heights Valhalla Rising aspires to achieve. Secondly, I wouldn't call those three films Art house films. Lastly, Valhalla Rising is indeed an acquired taste, but once acquired, oh my. It's a Viking fever dream, an elegaic sorrow song of heathens and religion, and of the new world usurping the old. If you don't get it, I feel bad for you, but have respect that you saw it. But to trash it, is ultimately small minded.

Mr DynaMic on Aug 9, 2010


I agree with Jeremy's review and #22. It was so hauntingly captivating. It did tell a story-a very important one at that. When viewing this, I really had to pay more attention than I normally would a movie because the scenery and actions of the characters told an eloquent story despite the lack of dialogue. It was not necessary. Like others said-you get or you don't. You like or you won't. Not every film works for every person-it's cool. Mads was brilliant, as always. Cinematography was impeccable. I don't know how many females have commented on this review or read any, but for what it is worth, I am. And I LOVED this movie and will not soon forget it and will definitely recommend it.

allison on Aug 10, 2010


I am excited to watch this movie because I want to know how Danish filmmakers remake their history about their Viking ancestors. I also love to see this movie coz I never saw a movie about Norse mythology.

Trag Lee on Aug 11, 2010

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