FILM REVIEW Valhalla Rising
Viking violence with pretensions sadly turns out to be a steaming pile of Norse shit
2010 • 18 • TBC mins • 30 April
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Gary Lewis, Jamie Sives
Director Nicolas Winding Refn is known for portraying tough characters, from the drug-touting hoodlums of his Pusher trilogy, to notorious British crim Charlie Bronson. While Refn’s latest continues this tradition, with a muscular central performance from Casino Royale’s Mads Mikkelsen, the toughest thing about Valhalla Rising is attempting to make it to the end credits without paying a visit to The Sandman.
Mikkelsen plays Norse warrior One-Eye, a mute, inhumanly violent force of nature who acts as a harbinger of death for all those who cross his path. We first encounter him in the desolate, wind-swept Scottish Highlands, enslaved and forced to fight untold numbers of heathens while chained and tethered, massacring them in increasingly sadistic ways. It isn’t long before he escapes his captors (disembowelling them for good measure) and joins a clan of Christian Vikings on a journey to the Promised Land. But the boat trip doesn’t exactly go according to plan, and the group finds itself in the middle of what can only be described as Hell on Earth…
Or at least we think that’s what happens. Because Valhalla Rising attempts to be one of those cryptic allegorical think-pieces, but ends up as what today’s crazy kids might call an Epic Fail. According to Refn, it’s supposed to be a metaphor for the Vikings landing in America, with One-Eye a substitute for, of all things, 2001’s Black Monolith, but it’s difficult to draw that conclusion after watching it.
The near non-existent narrative and glacial pacing result in endless tediously long takes where next to nothing happens, occasionally punctuated by extreme brutality, such as One-Eye tearing out a man’s throat with his teeth or making brain-matter-mush with a rock. There’s little attempt at characterisation, even in the case of One-Eye (we know he came from the other side of the ocean, and that’s about it), while environmental sounds and random bursts of guitar metal drown out the dour dialogue.
Despite this, Refn does succeed in generating a suitably dreamlike feel to his nightmarish vision, and Valhalla Rising is at least visually interesting: an intentionally bland snapshot of an oppressive age. Bonus points too for taking a wide berth around all familiar Viking stereotypes (there’s not a horned helmet in sight), but since the rest of the film is so alienating, dull and generally unpleasant, it’s not just the characters suffering through a hellish experience. Jordan Farley