Valhalla Rising (2009)

First published by EyeforFilm

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Many films can boast moments of intensity, but there are very few that maintain their intensity from beginning to end.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s latest, Valhalla Rising, is a Viking apocalypse that begins in the misty Scottish highlands before drifting through yet more mist to the end of the world – yet despite having no connection, in either its geography or genre, to Sogo Ishii’s reimagined Dark Ages chanbara folk tale Gojoe (2000) or Fabrice Du Welz’s post-tsunami chiller Vinyan (2008), it joins their ranks as one of the three most relentlessly intense films of the past decade, thanks to a set of core characteristics shared by all.

There is a deadly seriousness to the performances, an otherworldly eerieness of the locations, a hallucinatory emphasis on visionary portents, an ominous persistence to the rumblings of an electro-industrial soundtrack, and a spiritual dimension to the characters’ journeys that renders abstract and ambiguous all topographical specificity. These effects reproduce within the viewer something akin to the uncanny, ineffable thrill of a religious experience – not that any of the three films actually asserts the existence of a god or gods, so much as evoking the fanatical yearning within the characters (and viewers, too) for some form of transcendence. These are all, in their way, quest narratives, even if the object of the quest might not exactly turn out to be what was expected or desired.

In Valhalla Rising, a mute, nameless and seemingly unbeatable warrior-slave (Mads Mikkelsen), later dubbed ‘One-Eye’ for a conspicuous facial injury, breaks free of his bonds and murders all his heathen captors except for Are (Maarten Steven), the young boy who had served with kindness as his attendant. Man and child join a band of Christian crusaders on a journey by longboat to reconquer the Holy Land of Jerusalem, but they all get lost along the way – first on the still-as-death, fog-bound waters, and then on the unknown shores that they eventually reach, traveling up-river into the heart of darkness. Each man is searching for something different, but as they are assailed by delirium, disorientation and despair – not to mention unseen natives – the pilgrims find themselves being led through this new kingdom of the blind by a one-eyed killer, towards a destiny that only he can (half-)see.

If Fear X was Refn doing Lynch, and Bronson was his homage to Kubrick, then Valhalla Rising is the film where the writer/director goes all Herzog (with just a touch of Tarkovsky), following his characters into extreme circumstances in liminal spaces, and letting all manner of clashes and contradictions float downstream as flotsam and jetsam. Christianity collides with paganism, nature rubs up against culture, heaven is confused with hell, and everything in this sparse allegorical landscape takes on the metaphysical qualities of a symbol. It is an effect greatly aided by the colour filtering – mostly dull greys and greens, with One-Eye’s occasional visions in striking blood red, so that, near the end, a sun-drenched image atop a cliff acquires an extraordinarily haunting sublimity in part through its visual contrast with all that has preceded.

The difficulty with sustaining intensity for any period of time is that it so easily becomes ridiculous, but there is absolutely nothing in this brutal, at times violent film that will have you laughing – although plenty to fill you with addled awe. It is yet another string to Refn’s bow, consolidating his position as one of the most consistently exciting and versatile auteurs working in Europe today.

Anton Bitel