sat 25/05/2019

Valhalla Rising | reviews, news & interviews

Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising

It's bloody grim up North in Nicholas Winding Refn's metaphysical Viking saga

Mads Mikkelsen as fearsome mythic warrior One-Eye

Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn has already displayed unsettling form as a filmmaker intimately acquainted with violence. His Pusher trilogy probed into the black heart of Denmark's criminal underworld, while Bronson surfed a monster wave of ultraviolence in its account of psychotic jailbird Charlie Bronson. With Valhalla Rising, Refn has thrown his gears into reverse and screeched backwards to Pagan-era Scotland, though the director may be intending his location to evoke an all-purpose Nordic wilderness. Mads Mikkelsen plays a mute, expressionless fighting slave, kept in a wooden cage on a mountainside shrouded in freezing fog. The movie was shot in the Scottish Highlands, but the dauntingly bleak scenery and shattering sense of desolation make the location feel like some burned-out asteroid.

Dialogue and exposition have been ruthlessly purged, since Refn is dealing in archetype and myth, but we gather that Mikkelson (who acquires the name One-Eye, on account of the gruesome wound which disfigures his face) has been captured by a bunch of heathens who take bets on his fighting prowess. Despite being tethered like a dog in blinding rain and mud, One-Eye hurls himself nervelessly into every bout, battering all-comers to death with blows rendered with cringe-making visceral force.

Blank though his face remains, he's planning a getaway, and takes his chance after arming himself with a stray bronze arrowhead. Several slaughtered guards later, One-Eye is free. He tacitly adopts Are (Maarten Stevenson), a blond boy who has shown him kindness, and his protectiveness towards the lad becomes the slender narrative thread that leads him through the ensuing saga.

From brutal and desolate, the mood changes to unsettling and cosmic after One-Eye and Are come across a group of Christian Vikings, surrounded by corpses and captured naked women. They enlist the newcomers for their great adventure, a voyage to the Holy Land, whereupon our odd couple find themselves embarked on a Viking longship.

The voyage turns into an endless night of metaphysical dread as the boat seems to hang motionless in dense mist, backlit with a weird orange light, for at least an aeon. As screaming industrial-metal music shrieks and groans on the soundtrack, lunacy and disorientation begin to overwhelm the crew. One drinks sea water, goes mad and dies. The survivors blame the boy, but when they try to kill him, One-Eye leaps to the rescue. (Director Refn with Mads Mikkelsen, pictured below.)

mads__refn_smallThe travellers eventually make landfall, but it isn't the sun and sand of the Holy Land that awaits them, but a stark, rocky coast. When they go ashore and discover American Indian burial grounds, it's clear that a grave navigational error has occurred. Mortality begins to prey on the voyagers - one is shot with an arrow and, in a startling bad trip sequence, others crush each other to death. Meanwhile, One-Eye stoically builds a cairn of stones by the water as the electronic soundtrack cranks up to a migraine howl.

I'd be lying if I told you I understood what Refn is driving at here. He has made the observation that he sees the ocean crossing as a primitive equivalent of a journey into space - which is how it must have seemed to the protagonists - and he describes the One-Eye character as "The Monolith", like the enigmatic slab in Kubrick's 2001. Certainly One-Eye knows more than he lets on, much of it gleaned through a sequence of visions. In the most fateful of these, he has a premonition of a group of Indians battering a victim to death on smooth, black rocks.

Valhalla Rising may be an allegory about the meaningless cruelty of fate or the unfathomableness of eternity. Perhaps One-Eye is the product of extra-terrestrial genetic engineering, as posited by sci-fi fantasist Erich von Daniken. Either way it's a movie rich in intense and resonant images, even if you have to be Nicholas Winding Refn to make much sense of them.

Comments

Heavy metal Tarkovsky. Loved it. Really.

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