It's been a long time since we've had a good, slam bang Viking action epic and it looks like we're going to have to wait a little longer. What we get in Nicolas Winding Refn's (Pusher trilogy, Bronson) latest film Valhalla Rising is a lot of ominous imagery compounded with brief punctuations of savage violence. The effect is not unlike a Beat Takeshi film, where death is always close at hand because of their personal code, but lacks the pointed focus of those films.
Valhalla Rising is an interesting experiment and not one that I found altogether successful, but certainly deserves a look at cineastes of all shades. The imagery is startling beautiful throughout the entire film, and Refn knows how to craft out some great tense moments from some of the more gruesome elements. But it still feels like he's searching for more of a grand point, intersection of paganism and Christianity aside, and suffers from the same meandering as his previous film Bronson.
The central story of the film does lend itself to quite a bit of wandering. A group of nomadic Vikings are holding prisoner a tattooed, badly scared, one eyed Norse warrior dubbed "One Eye" (Mads Mikkelsen) by the token child of the group (Are, played by Maarten Stevenson). One Eye begins to experience visions in between bouts of staged combat where he is forced to fight for his life.
A special note about these and the other battle scenes, this movie has some of the most brutal violence in a film all year. It's actually useful to the plot in a way that some of the lesser films of the year don't quite seem to realize. As a reflection of a time when an uneasy truce between religious faith and brutality was necessary for survival it's quite effective. But I would be remiss in my duties if I didn't report that many of the fights, especially one where a man's skull is beaten in with a rock, made me feel a bit uneasy.
A vision that One Eye experiences leads him to discover an arrow head that he uses to slaughter his captors and acheive freedom. The little boy follows him for lack of any other parental figure around, and the two try to travel back home. Eventually they come across some Christian Crusaders who recruit One Eye into their band.
They begin to see him as a portent of bad signs. Fog begins to follow them everywhere and, in a truly harrowing sequence, they are lost at sea for several days with no wind, no current, no fresh water, and pale red fog everywhere. The question persist among them if God is still watching, or if God sent One EYe to test them all, or if it's God that sent him at all.
The rest of the film follows their journey and relies heavily on the atmosphere that Refn is excellent at crafting. The wind is never far off from these travellers and they are constantly framed against an expansive, dispassionate sky that cares not whether they find the Holy Land or not. The visual approach does begin to wear thin by the end of the film's run tim, but the pace is kept to a nice brisk hour and thirty minute run time so it doesn't quite wear out it's welcome.
As much as it is a step up for Nicolas Winding Refn, Valhalla Rising is still more a feast for the brain than the heart. There is much to admire and I felt myself tensing up at the pure craft of the film, but there's still a missing connective element to really draw me into his stories. As a director, he's shown significantly more promise than most, and Valhalla Rising is definitely a recommended step in a rewarding direction.