Valhalla Rising, the latest film from Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn (Bronson, The Pusher trilogy), is a hallucinatory trip into a savage world where Vikings and Christians collide, one group desperately holding on to their way of life, while the other attempts to propagate theirs. Sparse and poetic, Valhalla Rising is a hypnotic journey revenge and redemption.
Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale) is an enslaved warrior known only as One Eye. As his young companion, Are (Maarten Stevenson) explains to him, “You need a name, and you’ve only got one eye.” Covered in battle scars and thick tattoos, One Eye is kept in a cage like an animal, bound by the neck, and only released to fight to the death for the entertainment of his Viking masters. When he is sold, he escapes by slaughtering his pagan captors. Are, the only one who ever showed him any kindness during his captivity, is the only one immune to his wrath, and the unlikely pair set off across the rugged landscape.
With nowhere else to go, they eventually fall in with a group of Christian converts en route to the Crusades. Fate, however, has other plans for the cadre. When they set sail their ship drifts aimlessly, endlessly, engulfed in a dense fog that weighs heavy on their minds and sanity. Finally they arrive on the shores of the New World, where one by one, the men fall victim to the savagery of the land, their own extremism, and the warped minds of their companions.
Their voyage into the gates of Hell, told in five chapters, is reminiscent of the journey from Apocalypse Now, almost formless, but simultaneously richly layered and intense. Despite the violent nature of the surface events and the set up, Valhalla Rising is a quiet film, so quiet in fact that the protagonist never says a single word. It’s a testament to Mikkelsen’s acting that he can engender sympathy without uttering a syllable. This overwhelming silence is punctuated by abrupt moments of stunning brutality that dissipate as quickly as they arise. Graphic disembowelings, caved in skulls, piles of burning bodies, and ferocious outbursts of carnage abound. This is a cruel world, populated by vicious men who think nothing of slitting a man’s throat.
Thematically dense, Valhalla Rising is an enveloping nightmare that takes on fanaticism, sacrifice, war, religion, and imperialism. One Eye is a messianic figure who ultimately winds up being more Christian than the fervent Christians. The grim, gritty look and feel of the film is as fitting as it is beautiful. Visually striking, the cinematography is both expansive and intimate, and, combined with feverish soundscape, is largely responsible for the mesmerizing effect of the film.
Valhalla Rising will draw you in, keep your attention, and make you cringe. It’s a gorgeous film that is trippy and rhythmic, hellish and beautiful, quiet and violent all at the same time. Unfortunately the DVD doesn’t come close to matching the level of the film. Granted, you should buy this for the movie alone, but that is pretty much all that you’ll get since the only bonus feature included is the theatrical trailer.