Sunday, February 6, 2011

Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising is an English-language Danish film that teams up frequent collaborators Mads Mikkelsen and director Nicolas Winding Refn.  As the title implies, this movie is about Norse mythology adapted from a Clive Cussler book by the same name absolutely bewildering.  Valhalla is the Norse heaven for great warriors, where they hang out, feast, and drink until it is time to fight for Odin in Ragnarok.  This movie doesn't deal with Valhalla or Norse mythology at all, as far as I can tell.  It might not even have any Vikings in it.  Are you intrigued yet?

One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) is a fierce, silent (possibly mute) warrior that has been imprisoned by a Scottish mountain clan for several years.  Before he even does anything, it is clear that One-Eye is dangerous; the clan keeps him chained at the neck, captive in a cell, and they transport him with bound hands, a bag over his head, and guarded by two men at all times.  The Scotsmen take One-Eye from place to place and bet on him to defeat the toughest criminals/fighters/prisoners of their neighboring clans.  The fights are to the death, One-Eye has just one eye (that's not his given name, it's just a descriptive one), and he is chained to a pole during the fights.  And yet, One-Eye never appears to be in any true danger.  When it comes to killing, One-Eye has a natural talent.  Eventually, One-Eye escapes his bondage and kills his captors, except for the young boy that feeds him.  With nowhere else to go, the boy follows One-Eye across the Scottish mountains until they meet a group of Christians, intent on killing infidels.  The Christians wisely choose not to attack One-Eye and ask him to join them on their voyage to fight in the Crusades.  For reasons he never explains --- remember, he's a silent warrior --- One-Eye and the boy join the group.  That might not have been a great choice.  The group's boat is immediately covered with a dense fog, so thick they cannot even navigate by the stars.  They end up in a foreign land, all right, but it is certainly nowhere near Jerusalem.  It appears to be North America to the eyes of a modern audience, but to the medieval eyes of the Crusaders, this land offers many intriguing possibilities.  Is this place the Holy Land?  Probably not.  Is it the future sight of New Jerusalem, where they will spread Christianity to all the savages in this new land?  I doubt it.  Is it Hell?  Now we're getting somewhere...

This is a strange film.  It is divided into six parts, each with a melodramatic, if simple title:
I. Wrath
II. Silent Warrior
III. Men of God
IV. The Holy Land
V. Hell
VI. Sacrifice
The music, while sparely used in the beginning, is droning and wants to sound epic.  The camera work shows the broad landscapes, seemingly hinting at some sort of connection with nature that is never actually made.  One-Eye has visions of the future, always shaded blood-red, that appear to help him identify key moments in life.  When you add all of those up, what do you get?  I have no idea.

This is a dense movie.  It doesn't explain itself, and it doesn't expect you to "get it."  The film appears to be a nightmare or a hallucination at times, but the realistic violence seems to argue otherwise.  I could go on and on about the various possible meanings of this movie, but that won't change the fact that this movie is purposefully obtuse.  I don't mind strange movies, but I'm not going to bang my head against a wall trying to decode something that went to great efforts to be undecodable.

It's too bad that this movie has obscure art house tendencies, because Mads Mikkelsen is really good as the brutal One-Eye.  He doesn't have any lines, but is unquestionably the most interesting character in the film.  He rarely exudes anything more than hated, but this is an impressive performance, made all the more noteworthy for its lack of dialogue.  The other characters are largely inconsequential; if you've got a good eye for the character actors of Great Britain, you might recognize Gary Lewis, Ewan Stewart, or Alexander Morton.  They usually play small parts in big-budget movies that need British or Irish characters, and they do the same here.  The young boy, Maarten Stevenson, isn't a terrible child actor, but this definitely isn't one of those performances that will wow you with his talent or maturity.
"Operation" is less fun when only one of you is playing.

This is less about that actors than it is about the direction.  Nicolas Winding Refn makes his presence known here, but aside from showing off his love of violence, I don't know what he was attempting with Valhalla Rising.  He co-wrote the screenplay, so you would think the movie would be easier to understand than the work of a director interpreting someone else's words.  Not so much.  The bare bones of the narrative --- they go from point A to point B --- is somewhat clear, but even that could be up for debate.  Did they die on their voyage to not-Jerusalem?  Are they now in the afterlife?  Or did they just find Newfoundland a little early?  It's frustrating that even that basic part of the story is ambiguous.  I like it when directors try something new and I'm willing to forgive someone whose intent exceeds their reach.  This, though, is just pretentious.

The movie also leaves me with more questions than answers.  Why on Earth is this movie called Valhalla Rising?  I don't see a single reference to Vikings, unless One-Eye is Nordic.  The only hint I can see to that being true is the fact that the head of the Norse pantheon, Odin, is another great warrior with one eye.  I didn't see anything else to connect him with the Vikings or Odin, though.  The Crusaders are obviously not Vikings, if only because they have Irish and English accents.  There is a scene where everyone in the party drinks from the same gourd; the next ten minutes are like a slow-motion nightmare, and I'm not sure what is going on.  Is that guy in the mud raping his buddy?  Why is One-Eye building a cairn?  What was in that gourd, anyway?  Whatever, it was unimportant enough to never be mentioned again.  Isn't that odd?  A ten-minute nightmarish scene with no explanation is never mentioned again?  Man, Refn pissed me off.  The entire last chapter of the movie was equally frustrating.  Obviously, there is a sacrifice, but it unclear why it is being done.  And why do the natives have shillelaghs?  Whatever.  I stopped caring.

This movie's deliberately impenetrable nature wastes a powerhouse performance by Mads Mikkelsen.  I can't even recommend the film on the action and violence, unless I include an explicit warning that this is more of a head-scratcher than 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The first third of the film moved quickly and contained most of Mikkelsen's awesomeness, but the rest of the film bowed under a the filmmaker's pretension and poor pacing.


  1. Well, if it was a Scottish clan that captured Oneeye, what the hell was the kid drawing viking symbols on his back? It is more likely to be a Scandinavian tribe. One of those that invaded England. Just my 2c

  2. In all honesty, I don't remember what made me think it was a Scottish clan. I remember pondering this subject, but don't recall what made my decision. You could definitely be correct.

    I guess when I think of the Vikings that invaded the UK, I think of them as the people who took up farming and town life, forever changing language and genetics in the area. The small, scrappy, land-bound group(s) in this movie struck me as very different --- maybe because they were afraid of Christians? I don't know. The lines between native and invading forces in the UK is blurry to me.