Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Valhalla Rising (2009)

Directed by Nicholas Winding Refn. Starring Mads Mikkelsen.
Gritty sword and sorcery with an historical veil, Valhalla Rising is something of a divisive film. Depending on your point of view it is either carefully composed, enigmatic, elegantly paced with bouts of balletic yet brutal violence or simply extremely dull and pretentious.

I rather incline towards the first rather than the second.

In Valhalla Rising Mads Mikkelsen plays One-Eye, a mute and practically unstoppable killing machine of a man, whose one mode of expression is violence. When first we meet him he is being used as an attack dog/gladiator by a group of Norse raiders. Tethered to a post, One-Eye is forced to fight other warriors to the death, the fact that he is unarmed every time makes little or no difference. Only a young boy, Ave, treats him with any degree of humanity, his 'Masters' being more interested in the money he can make them than in treating their 'dog' well.

One-Eye, however, has another, more arcane ability to see into the future and in doing so finds the weapon he needs to free himself from captivity, which he does with chilling brutality slaughtering everyone except Ave.

Later they joins with a band of Scottish en route to Jerusalem and instead of the Holy Land ends up in strange and savage land that some of them believe to be Hell itself. Thereafter follows journey into a heart of darkness that is as compelling as it is sometimes brutal.

A literal and metaphysical journey for its main protagonist, Valhalla Rising is a beautifully shot film, making brilliant use of its Scottish locations and in Mads Mikkelsen it has a central character who is every bit as enigmatic as the film itself. Mute and with a masklike expression throughout, One-Eye is nevertheless a compelling character, echoing rage, hatred, frustration and even compassion in that blank, fathomless face. It is One-Eye who is the focus of much of the violence throughout, although rarely as instigator.

In terms of style and pacing Valhalla Rising could be compared to Herzog's Aguirre – Wrath of God – the same atmosphere of grim fatalism permeates both films – or Jim Jarmush's Dead Man with its slow build up and sudden, albeit brief, bursts of action. What all three certainly share is a charismatic central performance, and here Mads Mikkelsen is quite simply extraordinary as One-Eye doing more with that one, fixed, expression than most actors can do with their entire bodies.

As with Bronson, Nicholas Winding Refn's other study of violence and violent men, the self-conscious and studied art house sensibilities of Valhalla Rising may not be to everyone's taste but for those with a taste for the less travelled cinematic roads it is a treat.
Released in the UK in the wake of 300, the film was promoted as an action adventure, a Viking version of Thermopylae if you will, and doubtless to the chagrin of many who were expecting a repeat of 300's high octane visuals and Hollywood gloss. But Valhalla Rising is a much more challenging film less concerned with the spectacle of violence and more about its effects on the soul.

Not an easy watch, but a rewarding one.

1 comment:

  1. I've been meaning to see this for awhile now-I'm a big fan of Mikkelsen.