Tuesday 28 June 2011

Film Review | Valhalla Rising, dir. Nicholas Winding Refn

Movies are a lot like meals, if you think about it. Most will go in one end and - pardon me for saying so - out the other; these are sustenance of the basest variety. They keep you going, but the memory of them is never more than a trace, and not even that for long. However, there are also those films, and those foods, more about the art than the end result... those experiences which will remain with you for years to come, imprinted upon your memory like scars - fading with the passage of time, perhaps, but never to disappear entirely.

Valhalla Rising is an experience squarely of that latter variety, and it is powerful enough to leave a festering wound in its wake.

Shot entirely on location in Scotland - my own back yard at that! - Valhalla Rising is an elegaic chronicle of a quest for vengeance, and redemption. Danish writer/director Nicholas Winding Refn, whose oddball work on Bronson you will surely recall, bids us follow a mute warrior known only as One-Eye from a time spent in wretched captivity, through an escape aided by visions, and finally on a pilgrimage to the holy land. But when One-Eye arrives in the country his lurid dreams have heralded, he and the men who follow him - including Are, a boy slave of the same Norse chieftain who caged One-Eye for so long, and Kare, who hopes to see his dead sons again - they find not heaven, but hell.

Valhalla Rising is only loosely narrative-driven, and I dare say it is no more character-driven than that, though Mads Mikkelsen's bravura performance gives One-Eye an emotional arc of sorts. Rather, it's all about the land, and the life of the land; about a time and a place so forbidding that men and all they strive to do, and die for, are meaningless - so much miserable drizzle in the wind, which seems unceasing throughout Valhalla Rising.

Or perhaps not, for Refn's latest and surely greatest resists such pat understanding at almost every stage. What it is one moment is not at all what it is the next. It is, thus, a difficult film which demands a certain cerebral investment in order to appreciate on any level, but be sure your devotion will pay a handsome dividend when all is said and done.

Now I do not mean to suggest Valhalla Rising is devoid of action. Skulls are crushed, insides are aired out, and at least one head is detached from its traditional resting place and mounted on a pike. When the violence comes - in sudden, shattering bursts set to a spare soundtrack by PeterPeter and Peter Kyed momentarily swollen to an oppressive cacophony of churning - you will not mistake it, nor soon forget it.

Yet I cannot imagine action fans will come away from Valhalla Rising satisfied. Life for those folks One-Eye comes to blows with proves nasty, brutish and short, and the violence which inevitably results from these close encounters is not so much satisfying in itself as it is sickening. Add to that: there is no clear thread to grasp at in the intervening periods between one fight and another. As to how devotees of Refn's more visceral (and rather less artful) Pusher trilogy will react to this film, it's really anyone's guess.

And the hatchet swings both ways. Just as Valhalla Rising's transcendent tack is sure to dissuade one vast camp of viewers, so too will the occasional explosions of gruesome gore and industrial grinding offend such sensibilities as to inspire another - the arty and the farty - to prepare precious arguments about bad taste and the state of entertainment today.

Yet there will be those who can both stomach the sight of stomachs, and invest in the contemplative interim in the stirring sights and sounds of Scotland as was. Those folks - though there may only be a few of them - will come away from Valhalla Rising staggered, as I did, and single-handedly sold on anything Nicholas Winding Refn sets his sights on going forward, as I am.


  1. I enjoyed the hell out of this film and was not disappointed in the lack of 300-esque thrills that the dvd cover promised.

    The whole cast are on song but Mads Mikkelsen in particular is excellent. He deserves to be far better known than being the bad guy from a James Bond movie or the expendable sidekick in Clash of the Titans as he is tremendous as the mute One-Eye.

    On the movie making front, Refn and his cinematographer deserve Oscars for shooting a Scotland (a land I love and have visited aplenty) that seems so completely alien and threatening. When watching the film you really feel the dislocation experienced by the main protagonists as they are overwhelmed by the environment and mysterious pursuers.

    On a lighter, slightly surreal, note Refn toyed with the idea (to heighten the sense of total alienation) of having an alien spaceship land in the midst of the film's climactic scene and then thought it might just be a step too far.

    I saw the film about six months ago and certain scenes, such as One-Eye balancing river rocks one on top of the other as others of his party start to go bonkers, stay long in the memory.

    I can't wait for Refn's new film (The Driver) which stars Ryan Gosling as a getaway driver and on the strength of its showing at Sundance will be getting a wider than expected release.

  2. Mads is one of my favourite actors. He's also brilliant in Flame and Citron, if you haven't already seen it I highly recommend getting your hands on it :)

  3. "And the hatchet swings both ways. Just as Valhalla Rising's transcendent tack is sure to dissuade one vast camp of viewers, so too will the occasional explosions of gruesome gore and industrial grinding offend such sensibilities as to inspire another - the arty and the farty - to prepare precious arguments about bad taste and the state of entertainment today."

    I personally don't notice such a petty, prejudiced streak in most of culturally aware film criticism today. I think a professional critic, concerned about the state of entertainment today, might be way more open to something like this than the average movie "fan". Of course, sometimes they lack access to a certain subcultural phenomenon or genre, but mostly there's a tendency to cover a broad sweep over all the genres.

  4. Watching this film, I really felt I was moved in Time of Myth - quite an unusual experience.

  5. I honestly couldn't (and still can't) tell you whether I loved this film or hated it. It literally stopped my in my tracks from writing a review, and it was one of the last things I promised to blog about before I went on hiatus. Nevertheless, the fact that I haven't stopped thinking about the damned thing, and that I want to see it again less than six months later should be some indication that I (enjoyed seems the wrong word here) found it more interesting than alienating. And I find it even more telling that, with some time to consider the implication of the film's plot, I'm no closer to "getting it". And even stranger than that, I'm not the least bit despondent over that fact.

    Solid review, my friend.


    The Sound and Fury of Kristopher A. Denby

  6. Thank ye kindly, Kris. Indeed, Valhalla Rising left me boggled and baffled and pretty much beside myself in any number of ways, and perhaps that came across in the review - oops! :) But I think it speaks to the film's power that you and I are here, months later, still considering it with a certain sense of awe.

    Really tremendous work on Nicolas Winding Refn's part; stunning. Leaves me with very high hopes for his new movie, this year's Drive... you best be on board, my friend!