(2009)4Jason BuchananNicolas Winding Refn's Valhalla Rising does for Norse mythology what Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey did for space exploration. For that reason alone it's bound to be misunderstood, misinterpreted, and reviled by viewers in search of some easily digestible entertainment. Those who don't mind a bit of a challenge, however, will savor Refn's methodical, deliberate, and hallucinatory approach to the tale of a mute, one-eyed warrior's slow descent into hell. Broken up into six chapters, the film unfolds at a creeping pace. But it's never boring; with mounting dread, stunning cinematography, sudden blasts of violence, and a mesmerizing score by Peter Kyed and Peter Peter, it's unceasingly intense, and impossible to look away from.
Somewhere in the Scottish highlands, a stoic warrior named One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) languishes in a hillside cage. He is a prisoner, held against his will and forced to fight for his own survival. One day, while bathing in the river, he finds an arrowhead, and uses it to escape. After impaling his warden's head on a stake, One-Eye is followed over a hill by a young slave named Are (Maarten Stevenson), who previously tended to him while he was locked up. Eventually, the pair crosses paths with a group of Christian crusaders, and joins them on their journey to Jerusalem. After becoming lost at sea in a dense fog, the weary travelers discover that they have drifted far off-course. Now stranded in a strange land, they are forced to confront their deepest fears while struggling with the discovery that they are not alone.
For many movie fans, the mere mention of Vikings or Norse mythology conjures up images of massive armies and epic battles. But Refn and co-screenwriter Roy Jacobsen are interested in deeper issues than humankind's preoccupation with clashing swords, and anyone hoping for an action-packed adventure is best advised to steer far clear of this enigmatic, meditative tale.
Giving the film the look and feel of a particularly stark Hieronymus Bosch painting, cinematographer Morten Søborg masterfully conveys One-Eye's supernatural clairvoyance and externalizes the supporting characters' existential paranoia, negating the need for dialogue through the use of captivating imagery that's steeped in symbolism and subtext. Patient viewers will find it a deeply rewarding, transcendently beautiful experience.
Clocking in at just 90 minutes, Valhalla Rising takes us on a brutal, cerebral journey that's unusually profound for a film of such brevity, effectively proving that a film needn't be forebodingly cumbersome in order to tell a serious-minded, richly textured story.