When you heard that Mads Mikkelsen was starring in a film about a Norse crusader, you probably got pretty excited just as I did. However, the marketing, specifically the previews, set this movie up for a fall. It is presented as a hard-hitting, gritty period piece about the Christianization of Scandinavia. But that’s misleading. In reality, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising is a low-budget art-house film with vague historical roots and complex symbolism. It is also grinding, grotesque, bloody and scenic — like a Quentin Tarantino film shot in slow motion with a picturesque Scottish tourism video as the backdrop.
Now, I’m not trying to knock low budget films, but this movie feels low-budget, with very few extras and nothing but green mountains and foggy moors in the background — you get the feeling you’re watching a student film that was shot over the weekend. One pan of a yurt, a twig-thatched stone house or even a hole in the ground would have given the impression that people actually live in this godforsaken place.
A place where men are pitted against one another in hand-to-hand combat for the amusement (nobody watching seems particularly amused) of tribal elders. One chieftain is getting a little light in the purse, but the nameless undefeated champ we come to know as One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) makes quick work of his two opponents. His owner is reluctant to give him up, due to his hot streak, despite the fact he needs coin to deal with invading Christians. One-Eye is clairvoyant, and that fact helps him escape his bonds and slaughter everyone in sight, with the exception of a small boy who fed and took care of him while in captivity. The two start roaming the countryside and come across the aforementioned religious zealots spreading the good word. They recruit One-Eye and Are (Maarten Stevenson) to join a crusade to the Holy Land, Jerusalem, but these ‘crusaders’ are a bunch of buffoons who can’t navigate, hunt, forage or build a fire.
Their foolishness is as frustrating as the painfully slow pace of this film, which slows down for sporadic and belabored dialogue and speeds up for bone-cracking, stomach turning action scenes. The odd choice of pace coupled with the Norse mythology, makes Valhalla Rising a challenge. Indeed, you might be a little lost when it comes to the symbolism in this film. One-Eye is a reference to Odin, the god of war, wisdom, death, prophecy, victory, sex and the city, who was himself short an eye, which he traded in for the wisdom of the ages.
Towards the end of the film One-Eye tries to pile a bunch of rocks. The pile of stones is a pagan altar, and One-Eye, like Odin, sacrifices himself, to himself.
!End Spoiler Alert!
Get it? Neither do I. That and other symbolism is equally perplexing. It could simply be that Refn’s imagery and illusions are beyond me, but given the fact that inspiration for the characters and the story range from sources as varied as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Escape from New York and Dumbo, I’m not convinced. Regardless, if your movie is a heady tribute to a pagan god, don’t sell it as you would Gladiator.
So while Valhalla Rising was not my cup of tea, I still believe that Refn is a creative, talented, and brilliant director. Even though this movie was a little bit excruciating, I’d be willing to look at his other work.