Valhalla Rising
First screened and reviewed in September 2010 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn. Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Maarten Stevenson, Gordon Brown, Gary Lewis, Jamie Sives, Andrew Flanagan, Gary McCormack, Alexander Morton, Ewan Stewart, Mathew Zajac, Rony Bridges, Robert Harrison, Stewart Porter, James Ramsey, Douglas Russell, P.B. McBeath. Screenplay: Roy Jacobsen and Nicolas Winding Refn.

Twitter Capsule: Refn can be an engaging poet of the body in extremis but his structure is inert and the deadpan hard to decipher.

VOR:   If anything, the movie is too adventurous; some restraint might have helped. But hard to gainsay this much risk-taking.

Ed. Dec 2010: The first version of this review labored under the misapprehension that One Eye himself was a Christian; I suspected late in the movie that this could be an error, but boarded the wrong train early on while listening to his early captors express their repugnance at what they think they know about Christians, intercut repeatedly with shots of Mikkelsen, in his cage or in combat. I assumed that's why he was enslaved, but of course the movie makes more sense if this is not the case—although "more sense" is a very relative notion in the context of Valhalla Rising. I still find the allegory and, more than that, the style of the film pretty opaque, but I thank blog commenter ZPJ for clearing up my mistake.

Photo © 2009 Nimbus Film Productions, © 2010 IFC Films
The grandiose Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, after making Bronson such a busy film in design, technique, and performance, downshifts slightly into a different style for his Viking epic Valhalla Rising. I'm tempted to call it "bombastically stripped-down," since the film makes a strenuous point of being light on dialogue and palpably cold, full of wind-swept spaces that, in their rugged opacity, give as little to the viewer as the characters' faces. The film is also, however, prone to fever-dream inserts of blood-red waters and silhouettes, which Refn sometimes flips on their vertical axes just for kicks, so it's impossible to see the movie as restrained.

Refn breaks Valhalla into six rather arbitrary parts titled "Wrath," "Silent Warrior," "Men of God," "The Holy Land," "Hell," and "The Sacrifice," perhaps having heard from fellow countryman and egotist Lars von Trier that thou shalt have chapter titles. I'd say, though, that Valhalla Rising divides more coherently into four components. In the earliest and most arresting one, Mads Mikkelsen's one-eyed and copiously tattooed slave is kept manacled and caged by a cadre of six or seven heavy-browed pagans, their consonants and vowels of an unmistakably Scottish persuasion. Conversation, such as it is, returns often to how much these tribal oafs hate Christians. They seem to be training Mikkelsen to be a lion, one to whom they might feed some Christians later on. Regrettably, though, he keeps winning all of his lethal, mauling battles with these grim polytheists, who don't seem to know how funny they sound when they deadpan such slurs as, "A travelin' man told me they eat their own God." It's a bit like watching a beefed-up Klaus Kinski braining some burly extras while six or seven clones of Brian Cox furrow their brows in the background, laconically passing coins to each other. Actually, Mikkelsen is too dour an actor to invoke Kinski directly. In mien and in coiffure, he's more like Toshirô Mifune at his most stone-faced, though I'd say he indicates the script's desire for a charismatic monad more then he actually projects one. In every way, though, the film is obviously about audiovisual potency more than character construction. Valhalla Rising presents hand-to-hand brutality in ways that are as sculptural as they are kinetic. Refn's camera and montage induce unusual tension between the chilly stateliness of the shots and the outrageously Guignol events, as when Mikkelsen slits the abdomen of an especially reviled foe, reaches into the wound all the way to his own elbows, and yanks out a burnt-brown pile of steaming innards.

That last bit ought to suggest whether you're susceptible to the kind of vision Refn's got in his head. That said, the long prologue of Valhalla Rising doesn't reflect as much as one might predict about what the final hour is like. Splicing spectacles like this ghastly evisceration between hyperbolically impassive reaction shots, the film seems to be in on some tonal joke that it isn't confessing. No answers are forthcoming. In fact, very little at all is forthcoming while Valhalla Rising passes through a dull visual and narrative bottleneck of introducing the one-eyed, sadistic stoic to a traveling band of Christians, who then set sail together for what they hope will be Jerusalem, but turns out to be, I think, Nova Scotia. The trip across the water is Part Two of the film, the arrival is Part Three, and the impenetrable reckonings of the conclusion is the big finish.

For all its outlandish images, though, and despite the sense of Refn laudably reimagining far-off eras of history we seldom observe onscreen, Valhalla Rising feels implausible and self-regarding. For all its surfeit of testosterone, it's as dramatically chintzy as those Jean Auel novels where a beautiful Cro Magnon abandons her adoptive Neanderthal family and takes up with some northern-European blondes, only to make us wonder what if anything she has gained, or what we have. At least Clan of the Cave Bear connects rather juicily with its pop audience, and Auel's Ayla has the gumption to invent fire, wagons, and fellatio. By contrast, he errant "discoverers" of America in Valhalla Rising don't give the audience much pleasure, or generate anything new. They barely settle into their new habitat. They grunt about the Holy Land without, under Refn's lens, radiating anything like a spiritual conviction. One almost wonders if this flamboyant artist is chafing under his self-imposed asceticism, though again, that isn't always the best word for Valhalla's kooky imagination.

From Dreyer, a fellow Dane, all the way to such dissimilar contemporaries as Bruno Dumont and the Dardenne Brothers, the cinema has yielded artists whose sense of how to frame a shot or photograph a body was enough to communicate an impalpable spiritual plane. Sometimes the film welcome the characters onto this plane; in other cases, we watch as they are rudely banished from it. Refn trafficks in some different way with cinema's hospitality to stories of faith, but he never accesses any numinous power in his images. That may be his point, but it often just feels like a shortfall, and in any case it's not clear enough what he's offering instead. He continues to intersperse portentous non sequiturs of landscapes and looming faces, even repeating several inserts over and over. These mannerisms reveal themselves not to be totemic signals of something major to come or of some immanent force within his story. Rather, they suggest a hermetic exercise in style, only fitfully able to enrich this mute voyage with a credibly folkloric aesthetic or with a plausible tug of dream-logic. I thought, too, of Julián Hernández's bravely stylized and insistently elliptical Raging Sun, Raging Sky from last year. However, where the male form in Raging Sun... is capable of ecstatic arousal, violent release, and transported states of consciousness, the bodies in Valhalla Rising seem limited to trudging and colliding. Even at that, they get unexpectedly hemmed in after the pugilistic prologue. We watch some brutes sail an ocean, arrive, wander around, and get shot at by some mostly-offscreen indigenous Americans. Then, having shed most members in their party already, the remaining arrivées reach a few individual, broadly predictable reckonings. Somewhere, Valhalla rises.

I should mention that these guys have a straw-blond kid in tow, the only survivor of the heathenish clan who previously held Mikkelsen captive. With gaping eyes and perpetual apprehensiveness, the boy functions like one of the sidelined women in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, a film that Valhalla Rising rather baldly imitates, but with less consistent brio or verve. The actors occasionally growl out some line with absurd, Herzogian relish, swiftly cut down to ironic size. "We claim this land in His name!" one of them thunders, to which his brother-in-arms evenly counters, "How do we do that?" Moments like these indicate a welcome desire to leaven Valhalla's remarkable self-seriousness with something like a sense of humor—in every way a more welcome counterpoint than the sentimental appeal embodied by the wee kid. But either Refn's impulse toward humor is too ambivalent or his capacities to sustain it remain underdeveloped. Like a highland boulder, he solemnity of the film crushes every other tonal element. Refn flails, too, at accumulating any momentum from his intriguing visual leitmotifs, or at forging any audience connection to the Mikkelsen character, who isn't a dangerous presence so much as a tight-lipped eccentric. Every once in a while, he acts on a sudden urge to wipe out one of his comrades. Why this impulse arises when it does, or why it isn't more constant, I cannot say. On the visual and atmospheric plane, Valhalla is clearly stronger; it may be the only criteria by which to fairly judge the film, so heavy is Refn's stress on these elements. Even so, the digital interference with the landscape photography applies a hard, irritating sheen to what might otherwise have been the world's most peculiar topographic study. The ritualistic finale, marrying a violent and very literal climax of events with a hypnotic, poetic rendering of the same moment, approximates a sense of the allegorical without evoking any specific or meaningful resonance.

Conceptually, even if Refn hasn't squarely hit his target, Valhalla at least harbors ambitions to engage early history in an unusual way. One could claim something similar about its peculiar approach to visualizing faith, somewhere between the unreassuring absurdism of Herzog and the inarticulate but oddly theological bruteness of Dumont. Aesthetically, Refn still looks like a showboater, too much his own uncritical muse, but he at least takes risks on rhythm, repetition, color, sound, and stylization. He could be a dead-end figure or an interesting talent still waiting to crack more fully. Since I haven't seen any of his work before Bronson, I should confess the possibility that I haven't caught him at his best. He furnishes a distinctive if frustrating experience with Valhalla, a film that fails to stand up to its obvious points of lofty comparison (including Malick's The New World) but that few other artists would have made.

I appreciate Refn for pushing so intrepidly against the usual conventions of rhythm, photography, subject, color, and form. I don't mind that Valhalla Rising lacks a story so much as I question its enigmatic hints at some grand, over-arching idea; Refn seems patently more gifted at taking punchy, textural stock of objects and bodies immediately at hand, rather than chasing abstractions that never arrive. When he takes hard, occasional turns into kitsch, I couldn't tell if he had reached the apex of some strange, close-to-the-vest auteurist stratagem or whether I had simply fallen out of good faith with an imposingly highfalutin film. At one point, Refn offers a montage sequence that has been slowed to such an extreme I could barely decipher the actions transpiring within it (rock-stacking, fishing by hand, and what looks like a male-male rape in a mud pit) or their temporal relations to each other. By that point, "comprehension" had plainly receded as the capacity Refn most wished to stoke in his audience. Or else it had vanished from the repertoire of how I felt able to respond. What Refn prompts instead I could not presume to say, beyond a perplexing if often misguided sense of formal bravado. The historiographic audacity of Valhalla feels as weighed down by its thuggish performers and its barely-there scenario as it is served by them. But maybe someone reading this can't believe I could misperceive Valhalla Rising so profoundly, and maybe that person is coming to cudgel me. You can't stop what's coming, and yet at other times, despite ominous intimations, "what's coming" never really arrives. Grade: C+

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