The time is the Dark Ages, the setting is the wilds of northern Europe. The tide of early Christians is threatening to wipe out the tribes of pagans and barbarians that’ve long roamed the mountains. In one of these tribes, we find a mute, one-eyed warrior of unknown provenance who escapes from slavery and, accompanied by a scraggly-haired boy, joins a band of Christian crusaders en route to the Holy Land. Seized with notions of righteousness and dreams of treasure, these desperate men soon find themselves lost, their boat engulfed in a mysterious fog. They emerge in an alien land where, confused and dispirited, the group unravels through sheer madness and terror, and our one-eyed warrior assumes an unexpected role of divine leadership.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn, best known from his renowned Pusher trilogy and the excellent experimental portrait Bronson, starts off his latest feature, Valhalla Rising, with a bang, but, once his Crusaders and his lead character One Eye (the always magnetic Mads Mikkelsen) stumble out of the fog, his film stumbles right back into one. The first half of Valhalla Rising is a slow, hypnotic, often graphically violent, fever-dream depiction of savagery in the Dark Ages as the slave One Eye must engage in brutal, to-the-death battles with warrior-slaves from rival tribes. These are human versions of cockfights and a means for the slave-masters to make money. Luckily for his master, One Eye never loses. In fact, he is an unsparingly violent fighter who one day decides he’s going to break out of bondage. These sequences — in which brains get crushed, necks broken, and, yes, bowels spilled — aren’t the easiest to watch, but Refn drives home the point that violence is every bit a reality of life as the bleak weather and desolate landscape for these men.
It’s in these unforgiving conditions that the darker realms of human nature can perhaps best be explored. Werner Herzog has proven that time and again, from Aguirre: The Wrath of God (with which Valhalla Rising bears resemblance) and Fitzcarraldo all the way to Rescue Dawn and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. But what’s missing in Valhalla Rising is a strong enough sense of a coherent theme tying it all together, a philosophy to guide our viewing and interpretation.
From the scant indications that Refn offers, his film — to me — seems to be about man’s desperate need for leadership, and to anoint prophets and form religions, if only to give shape to the orderless chaos of the universe. Refn is a commanding filmmaker, no doubt, and a ballsy one; his previous film Bronson was a masterly collision of hallucination and surrealism within a character-driven narrative framework. Here, though, he’s left out the framework so that what we have is so formless and arbitrary in meaning that it all borders on pretentiousness. The sequence that really sinks Valhalla’s boat is a nightmarish interlude in which the Crusaders, in a violent upheaval, lose their minds en masse and their animalism is unleashed. From this point on, all bets are off; Valhalla Rising rescinds all coherence and seems content to depict mumble-mouthed dialogue among the disillusioned survivors and follow its rather unconvincing notion that One Eye is a kind of Christ figure, a savior to the boy who’s faithfully stuck by him and even speaks for him.
All of this sounds more poignant and compelling that it actually is because most of the above meanings feel unearned by the film, and patched together in ad hoc fashion by the viewer. Mikkelsen provides us with a solid central character on whom to pin our attention, but Refn can’t back him up with strong enough material in terms of theme and dramatic structure. As a result, Valhalla sinks no sooner than it had risen.
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn
Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn, Roy Jacobsen
Cast: Mads Mikkelson, Maarten Stevenson, Gordon Brown, Andrew Flanagan, Gary Lewis, Gary McCormack, Alexander Morton