Valhalla Rising

September 17, 2011

In anticipation of the upcoming Drive, I have been on a Nicolas Winding Refn kick.

Made in 2009 and released the following year, Valhalla Rising is an obstinately uncommercial beast. Nicolas Winding Refn’s film, starring Mads Mikkelsen alongside an assortment of lesser-known Scottish actors, strives for a grimly poetic, mystical tone delivered at a portentous pace and largely eschews the unrelenting mayhem promised by the desperate manipulations of the trailer. Mikkelsen is probably still best known to international audiences as the villainous poker expert and bollock-busting bastard, Le Chiffre, in Casino Royale. Although it garnered significant critical attention, likely due to the respective profiles of its director and star, Valhalla Rising was met with strongly divisive opinions and a practically non-existent box-office performance. This film is certainly not for everyone, and is difficult to defend, but here goes an attempt at a tentative argument in its favour.

In what might be Scotland, 1000 AD, a captive Viking is pitted in gladiatorial, mortal combat for the entertainment and enrichment of a Highland clan. He escapes and slaughters his captors with the exception of a young boy who joins him on his journey thereafter and names the mute warrior One-Eye. They encounter a band of Christian warriors who are embarking on a crusade to Jerusalem (about one hundred years before anyone else did, but never mind about that) and are invited to accompany them. The journey doesn’t go as planned, and the group find themselves in an unfamiliar land which isn’t Jerusalem, and which still looks like Scotland, but is probably North America and/or Hell. Despair and madness soon ensue.

It takes guts to, um, take guts.

Alright, so the main character doesn’t make a sound. Not a word, or even much in the way of a grunt or snarl. He’s still a complete badass, however, and his seemingly dispassionate disemboweling of a bound adversary early in the film marks a literally gut-wrenching highlight of convincing screen violence. Mikkelsen makes for a commanding physical presence onscreen, despite the major constraint of his silence. His character may serve as a vague allusion to Odin, though the possibly symbolic clash of old Norse paganism with emergent European Christianity is not entirely clear as the film prioritizes atmosphere over transparency throughout. A couple of truisms I would apply here are that some films are better felt than understood and also that some films are simply not for everyone. One’s enjoyment of Valhalla Rising may ultimately be heavily dependent on one’s mood going in. I was certainly in the mood for a slow, trippy, meditative flick that was heavy on the cinematography, and minimalist at best on almost everything else, especially after the usual summer fare of bombastic blockbuster crap vomiting all over me at 300 miles per hour. This film was a welcome change of pace. At the risk of praising the Emperor’s new clothes, though, it must be said that Refn’s film doesn’t really stick any landings nor lend itself to much in the way of the profound and serious results it appears to be aiming for. Again, this is a film heavily dependent on the transient whimsy of the viewer. If you’re in the mood for a film where grim-looking men stare at a beautifully composed but static landscapes whilst muttering grave and solemn platitudes regarding hell and damnation, then Valhalla Rising may prove rather enjoyable. A friend of mine with broadly similar tastes in film found it to be over-indulgent garbage and I can only explain this as my having set my mind to a highly receptive state for slow-burning artwank on the night of my viewing.



  1. I saw this at the London Film fest before its release and loved it. Partly for the pace – it felt like it was shoving you into a non-modern environment where sometimes (such as much of winter) nothing much happens and you just deal with it. Epitomised by the misty longboat scene.

    Definitely more of a mood piece than anything else, but I’m good with that.

  2. Actually, Alex, I somewhat regret my craven apology above. I enjoyed Valhalla Rising more than what comes across in this post and I think the problem is that I allowed myself to be too heavily influenced by more negative reactions from friends and elsewhere. I went looking for feedback and found some hostile reactions that made me second-guess my own opinion and which undermined my confidence quite significantly. Pity I didn’t hear from you first. It was a swell flick.

    Still, I don’t do rewrites, you dig?

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