Title: Valhalla Rising (2009)
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen
Within the vast landscape of film, there are many genres and sub-genres. Amongst the many sub-genres that exist there is the type of film known as the “trippy film” or the film that makes you feel like you just ingested large amounts of psychotropic drugs. Amongst these films we can mention Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 (1968), Ken Russell’s Tommy (1975) -or any Ken Russell film for that matter- and Roger Corman’s The Trip (1967). A more recent example would be Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void (2010), a truly hallucinatory film experience. Actually, the best example I can think of for this kind of film is Terry Gilliam’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998). Every time I see that one, I feel like I took a butt load of all the drugs in the world, rolled them up into one big fat joint and smoked it. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising (2009) definitely falls under this category of film.
"Conan: What is best in life?"
Valhalla Rising tells the story of One Eye, a Viking who is a slave to his masters. His masters make him fight to the death for the entertainment of others and for their own monetary benefit. That is until One Eyed decides he’s had enough of being a slave and finds a way to escape the hands of his oppressors. Once out in the world, One Eye is the master of his destiny. He unwittingly makes friends with a little homeless kid who decides to follow him around. Together they wonder the land, until they stumble upon a crew of Christian Crusaders who invite One Eye and the kid to join their venture of reclaiming Jersulem for Christianity. One Eye and the kid join them. Will they reach Jerusalem? Will One Eye and the kid stay with this pack of Christian Crusaders? What awaits them out there in the world?
I was pleasantly surprised with this movie. But I’ll warn you guys and gals out there, the film is kind of slow. I mean, this film is refreshing because it’s not playing by any of hollywood’s rules for filmmaking, but I’m sure it’s not a film that everyone out there will like. There is no happy ending, no action piece at the beginning middle and end. No big special effects. Valhalla Rising is more of an artful film, more interested in blowing you away with its visuals. The film was shot entirely in Scotland, so we get these vast landscapes with snowy mountains and lots and lots of mist. The wind is blowing most of the time, you kind of feel like your going to see Scottish Immortals trying to chop their heads off at any given moment. The first half of the film, which takes place in these cold windy mountains, has this ice cold atmosphere to it, you really get to absorb it because the director makes sure you get the visuals to really transport yourself to this ice cold world filled with Vikings who only care for killing and maiming, even if its just to amuse themselves.
The film is divided into 5 Chapters, where we see the main character go through different stages of his voyage. From prisoner, to free man, to warrior of God…and onwards all the way to the final chapter: Sacrifice. The film makes an interesting comment on religion because it takes place during the time when Christianity was spreading through the land, trying to obliterate any other kind of religion that existed out there. It was a time when these “holy crusaders” would go across the land slicing and dicing anyone who wasn’t a Christian. If one of these guys walked up to you, sword in hand and asked you: “are you a Christian?” you’d better pray your answer was a resounding “yes!” or else you would get your head chopped off by these holy crusaders. Or get burned alive. Take your pick. I don’t know what’s so holy about killing people who don’t think like you, but whatever, that was Christianity for ya! Another recent film that explores this type of “become a Christian or die!” mentality is Alejandro Amenobar’s excellent Agora (2010); a film that also explores that pressure felt in different parts of the world to become a Christian and leave any other kind of belief system behind. So One Eye kind of joins these crusaders, but you get the feeling that he is just hitching a ride with them, and his not really into their “holy” crusade. It’s without a doubt a film that comments on religion, specifically Christianity and its intent to get everyone to think like them, spreading their teachings to lands where people already have their belief systems set.
Film gets pretty graphic at times, but dont mistake it for a gorefest
Like I mentioned before, this is a film that is playing by its own rules, so it doesn’t care if we should be in the third act and by this time the hero should be getting to that point where everything is going to be okay. No, this is a film where suddenly the character will have a dream sequence, a premonition, or whole sequences where every character is hallucinating and baked out of their mind. It has long stretches of visual poetry and these are the moments where the director plays a lot with images and colors, using the visuals to create a hallucinatory, nightmarish vibe. The director himself said he conceived the film as an acid trip, so be ready for a movie like that.
Aside from that, another good thing the film has going for it is Mads Mikkelsen’s performance which I really dug. Interesting part of his whole performance is that he doesn’t speak a word in the whole film. He plays the silent warrior who says everything he has to say with the look he can give you with his one eye. This is a guy who’s seen so much hell, he sees words as useless. If he has to say anything, he says it with his axe. Another interesting aspect of the film is that the kid who follows him kind of speaks for him through out the whole film, the kid functions as One Eye’s voice. This was a very intense performance, Mikkelsen certainly owns this film, he carries it on his shoulders admirably.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn (extreme right) with his two main actors
Closing words: Valhalla Rising is not for everyone. It’s a trippy affair, with long winding moments of visual poetry. I would definitely say that you’d have to be in the right mood to see this kind of film. But is it a bad film? I don’t think so! I would recommend this film to those people who appreciate visuals over dialog, or if you simply want to watch an interesting looking film. Still, within its ‘simplicity’, Valhalla Rising does speak some truths. This was my first Nicolas Winding Refn’s film, but based on the visual strength of this film alone and the sheer bravura it exerts, I will definitely be seeing more films from this director. Looking forward to exploring the rest of his repertoire.
Rating: 3 1/2 out of 5