After watching this twice in less than a week I’ve come to the conclusion that it falls into the “misunderstood masterpiece” category. ‘Valhalla Rising’ comes off like a collaborative piece between Andrei Tarkovsky, Werner Herzog and Terrance Malick after they got together and watched ‘Apocolypse Now’ and a bunch of old UFC tapes, under the influence of hallucinatory drugs with their minds set on making a violent yet trippy & ambient film. It stars Mads Mikkelsen (on of Refn’s regular actors) as “One-Eye”: A Norse prisoner/slave in 1000 A.D. who’s forced to fight other prisoners to the death for the enjoyment of their captors. His ruthless fighting ability has not only left him undefeated but it slowly builds him a reputation through out the land. Finally after breaking free from his captors early on in the movie he joins up with a group of religious crusaders set on claiming whatever land they see in the name of god (we later come to find out that this land they plan to claim is already occupied by a certain type of NATIVE people). Outside of the Herzog/Tarkovsky influence, Refn was also clearly influenced by everyone from Francis Ford Coppola to Ridley Scott. Obviously the idea of a group of warriors on a doomed crusade is going to draw comparison to other stuff like ‘Apocolypse Now’ and Herzog’s ‘Aguirre The Wrath Of God’. The structure of ‘Valhalla Rising’ even draws inspiration from fellow danish director; Lars Von Trier as the film is told in chapters (something Von Trier is known for in almost everything he’s done since ‘Breaking The Waves’). The soundtrack, reminiscent to Brion Eno’s score for ‘Fear X’, is extremely unsettling and really does a great job at setting the mood. The one-on-one fight scenes are realistically brutal and entertaining (one scene in particular shows One-Eye almost decapitating another fighter with a chain) but there’s not as much of those scenes as you would think. The trailer for ‘Valhalla Rising’ IS somewhat misleading. The fight scenes between the other slaves really only take place in the first quarter of the film while the rest of the story focuses on the crusade One-Eye goes on with the christian soldiers until they meet their demise in the end. But all the violent scenes from the first part of the film are what stand out the most. In my opinion Nicolas Refn has a talent and maturity for showing violence on screen that other directors don’t.
The older I get the more I can see how directors like Tarrantino or Takashi Miike (sorry, not a fan) approach violence in their films like immature boys. Its as if they sit at home, do/or drink a bunch of coke (depending what kinda “coke” we’re talking about), writing a script and saying out loud to themselves: “Oh Yeah! This guy’s throat is gonna get slit open and then blood is gonna go everywhere, then a bunch of people get shot with machine guns! Its gonna be CRAZY!”. But somehow Refn’s approach to violence and how he shows blood & guts doesn’t seem to bother me at all (same thing applies to directors like Gaspar Noe or David Cronenberg). I know this is going to sound kinda pretentious, but there’s beauty in the way he shows people getting their faces smashed in, throats stabbed or necks snapped (hope that didn’t sound too morbid). I guess a lot of it has to do with the almost indescribable atmosphere that surrounds the violence he shows on film thanks to the dark lighting, industrial/Brian Eno-esque score, minimal dialogue and cinematography. The “look” of ‘Valhalla Rising’ is just haunting.
With Valhalla the specific atmosphere comes from all the shots of the sky (reminiscent of Michael Mann’s sky shots in Miami Vice and Ali), the fog, clouds, mountains and the Scottish landscapes where the film was shot. Subconsciously you’re reminded of everything from Malick’s ‘The New World’ (especially with the presence of the Native Americans at the end of the film) to the opening shot in ‘The Shining’ (Jack Nicholson driving through the foggy hills on his way to the overlook hotel). Its nice to know that a young-ish director that’s commonly associated with the independent/art-house scene isn’t afraid to make a film like ‘Valhalla Rising’. I almost get the sense that Refn felt this could compete with studio films in the vein of ‘300’ or ‘Gladiator’ but on a smaller scale. Some may be turned off by the middle part of Valhalla as it does dabble in religious symbolism and becomes VERY dreamlike. Its an acquired taste but if you’re a fan of the film’s influences that I mentioned earlier (Tarkovsky, Herzog, Von Trier, etc) chances are you’ll enjoy this.
And on a side note, I’m at the point where I’ll watch just about anything with Mads Mikkelsen in it…