On the surface, Valhalla Rising seems like a fairly straightforward viking action romp, with plenty of blood, beards and...metaphysics?
Ok, so not so straightforward then.
In truth, the only thing that is straightforward about this film is the premise: mysterious mute viking warrior (named One-Eye by his young companion, though that's clearly not his real name...if he even has one) escapes his pagan captors and falls in with a bunch of Christian crusaders who are en route to Jerusalem. One-Eye joins their crusade (for his own reasons that are not divulged) and things go pear-shaped when the crusaders somehow end up in America as opposed to the Middle East. From then on, things get very weird indeed...
While it's trendy these days to paint vikings as rather more civilised people than the popular legends, the fact remains that they were quite partial to spilling blood and crushing the odd skull. This is certainly the angle that Valhalla Rising takes, and subsequently the film is packed with eye-wincing brutality. It's not gratuitous - the violence is necessary and appropriate, though it is certainly visceral.
Don't mistake Valhalla Rising for a dumb action film though, because it's much more than that. For a start, the cinematography is excellent; the first third of the film in particular is wonderfully bleak and moody, and the rugged landscape is used to impressive effect. The early parts of the film are shot through with strong sense of realism; it all just looks so authentic, which is something that historical films don't always achieve. The final third of the film, set in America (or is it? Yeah, it's that kind of film) lacks the brooding intensity of the earlier scenes, but makes up for that by cranking up the weirdness.
Another aspect worthy of praise is the sound; it's been a long time since I've seen a film where the soundtrack plays such a huge - and effective - role in promoting the tension and paranoia that percolates through the film. It's utilised so well that even in apparently static scenes where not a lot is happening, the skittering beats and discordant notes keep the tension levels high. When combined with the obscure 'dream' sequences that repeat throughout the movie, the overall result is pleasingly unsettling.
It's difficult to say for sure what exactly Valhalla Rising is trying to say or do (if anything at all), yet the religious undertone is clear, and the film can be said to be riffing on the idea of faith (and faithlessness). The mist-shrouded journey certainly has an element of the supernatural, and the film ranges into metaphysical territory when the crusaders arrive in the New World. If that all sounds a little weird, then that's because it's a strange film - yet absorbing too, especially earlier on.
Mads Mikkelsen is excellent as One-Eye; despite not having a single line of dialogue (hell, he doesn't even have a single grunt) he manages to imbue his character ('the creature' as the crew members refer to him in the 'making of' feature) with a strange, detached ferocity. Yet he's curiously enigmatic at the same time, which provides an odd counterpoint to his brutal side.
Valhalla Rising is unflinchingly brutal, unsettling and bizarre. This violence and weirdness is merged seamlessly with often gorgeous visuals and a hugely effective soundtrack. A very strange film, but also a curiously good one.
Speculative Horizons is a UK-based blog dedicated to discovering the best in speculative fiction. Here you'll find book reviews, author interviews, artwork for upcoming releases, and commentary on all aspects of the genre.
A child of the eighties, I was raised on a steady diet of Ghostbusters, Thundercats and Transformers. I eventually discovered fantasy books via the awesome Fighting Fantasy series, and my love of fantasy led me to create Speculative Horizons, a popular book review blog I ran for three years. In 2010 I joined Orbit to work as an editorial assistant.