Tuesday, January 4, 2011

review: Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising (2009, Nicolas Winding Refn)

Compared to the works of Tarkovsky and Kubrick, Nicolas Winding Refn’s recent existential Viking drama Valhalla Rising is a unique if puzzling experience. This is the first of the director’s efforts I’ve seen (I have read that Bronson is quite another film to behold), and Viking stories are not ones I am very familiar with, so there was no real context as I sat down to watch this, which sometimes is the best to experience movies, and one heck of a way to dive into Valhalla Rising.

Mads Mikkelsen plays a mute slave fighter, captive of some brutal Viking-like characters who bet coins on various battle contests between their prized possessions in a dreary, mountainous region. The contests are set in muddy puddles, where Mikkelsen’s character, later baptised One-Eye by a Viking boy, is chained to a post by the neck. Fate offers him a tiny window of escape, which he dutifully and violently takes advantage of, either quickly dispatching or torturing his captors to death. The lone survivor is the child Viking, with he travels the up and down the mountains until they come across a small band of soldiers, devout Christians who invite the duo to join them in their quest to reclaim the Holy land of Jerusalem in the name of their lord and saviour. The boat ride to the Middle East does not go as planned when a thick, interminable fog descents upon them, misleading them away from their intended course. Where they eventually set ashore is anybody’s guess…

If after reading the above plot synopsis the readers assumes that the story to Refn’s film is about all over the place, that it because is mainly is just that. The characters, rugged, filthy but determined in their goal, do in fact hop from place to place throughout the movie, but once the viewer becomes fully alert of Valhalla Rising’s boldly epic thematic complexities, that is exactly the point. The Norwegian born director has his story split into chapters with titles such as ‘Wrath’, ‘The Silent Warrior’, ‘The Holy Land’ and ‘Hell’ just to name a few. Each segment pertains to either a physical location the group is traversing or a mental state of our anti-hero, One-Eye. The chapters may offer some variety in terms of plot development, limited as it may be, but one constant that remains true for the duration of the running time is the movie’s bleak, oppressive tone. Refn is relentless in his grim depiction of the ill fated Crusaders, from their confusing sea voyage that goes awry to damnation that awaits them once they set ashore in a strange land. His is a grimness that grows slowly but surely, which is saying something given how the movie is quite dark in tone from the outset. But the early goings are grim mostly for the physical characteristics of the land and the people we follow. In the latter stages, the oppressive nature stems from the far more intangible sources, like the blindness of faith, what it can lead to, and mistrust amongst the lost Crusaders and One-Eye. Even when it grows increasingly clear that they have not arrived in the Holy Land, the leader of the group preserves his firm grip on the ideal of conquering a land in the name of their lord. Even the other soldiers, having not eaten in days and tired beyond belief, are no longer as ambitious anymore, preferring to find food, even though none seems to be around. The tensions rise between themselves and with One-Eye, whom they accuse with the boy of cursing them with their presence. Under these circumstances, the villains are less the unseen outside forces hunting them down, but rather themselves as determination turns to desperation. The seeds of doubt and mistrust influenced by unshakable faith in god, a faith that essentially dictates what course of action to take since all things are run by ‘god’s will.’

The two members with whom the viewer could ever possibly relate are in fact One-Eye and the boy since they essentially become one. How? This is where the pseudo science-fiction elements enter the fray.  For one, One-Eye can, in sporadic fashion, predict the future with one second visions splashed in red. Secondly, it is through the child that One-Eye communicates with the Crusaders (via what I assume is form of telepathy), who often demand his thoughts on certain matters once they have landed ashore in the mysterious land. None of this is ever explained, but revealed in small snippets. Refn balances the brutal with the spiritual, the overt with the subtle in very interesting ways. Valhalla Rising keeps reserving little surprises for the audience along way, which is ironic because the story’s conclusion feels so unavoidable. Mads Mikkelsen, who I had not seen since 2006’s Casino Royale, is convincing as the mute and off-putting One-Eye. The slave warrior keeps to himself for much of the movie, only showing even the most subtle signs of genuine human emotion towards the child he ‘adopts.’ This is not Rinko Kikuchi in The Brothers Bloom, also a mute character but a joyful and charismatic one. Mikkelsen is a beaten down wolf, but a wolf nonetheless, who can re-discover thrilling energy when his life is on the line. His past is a mystery, just as Mikkelsen’s face si, and interestingly enough that makes his performance all the more compelling.

There are some slow sequences that occasionally bog down the film, but never for very long. One such instance is during the boat ride to the Holy Land when the mist sets the protagonists off course. Refn deliberately slows down the pace to a crawl, setting up many shots of the Crusaders, One-Eye and the child, who grow more weak and tired with every passing minute. Visually the sequence is stimulating, with a golden hue shining on the vessel as the sun’s lights tries with small success to pierce through the low clouds. After a short while, the viewer perfectly understands what the scene is getting at and I didn’t feel as though those moments were aided by extending the running time, but thankfully the director doesn’t fall prey to this sort of misstep often. There is also the issue of the climax, which has One-Eye and the child face off against a small army of very odd looking natives. Who are these people, why are they hostile (although that could be explained by inventing a backstory in which previous Crusaders and men of such ilk invaded the natives’ land, thus causing more hostile welcoming behaviour for future parties). I rarely ask for such explanations, nor did I absolutely require one here, and I should stress that visually and tonally, I really enjoyed the effect of the climax, but it did seem a little bit odd. It wasn’t as though they had travelled across the Atlantic ocean to the New World after all. According to the title cards of the chapter, they are in ‘Hell’ which is a nice metaphor, but really, what sort of Hell and why should they be there? It’s very open to interpretation, something I enjoy plenty, but perhaps I simply had greater than usual difficulty wrapping my head around this particular puzzle.

Nicolas Winding Refn delivers one of the more curious films of the last couple of years. There is violence, there is action, yes, but it is a more meditative experience than some might anticipate.


Aiden said...

Solid review, man. Been meaning to see this ever since it went up on Netflix Instant and this might just be the push I needed. Mads is a really cool actor who I need to see more of, and the same goes for Refn as a director. And definitely check out Bronson, was a big fan of that and is the biggest reason the world should watch the hell out for Tom Hardy. Crazy stuff.

edgarchaput said...

@Aiden: If it doesn't cost much to see films on netflix Instant, then I'd say that's a plan. I think it would be worth your time, but the film has divided people a lot, so I wouldn't want to convince beforehand that it's an utter masterpiece. It's a very, very slow burn, but one I enjoyed.

James said...

Great Review, One Eye is or has been used to refer to Odin. Odin was called Old One Eye. I took from it, maybe a stretch, that the Pagans who had denounced their Gods for Christ were paying the price as he sought vengeance, misled them to America and knew their fate, including his own. Kind of the Death of Odin, Birth of Christianity and the New Pagans of the New World. Then again I maybe reading way too much into it and comparing too many sagas and such to it. I do agree it is slow, "Slow Burn" is a great term for it. The Music and the Artistic Scenery/Film Style are the anchor in the film, although slow I was enthralled. Either way, great review & a great Film.

Erich Kuersten said...

Are you sure this site's zombie proof? Good review! Valhalla Rising needs friends like you!