Sunday, 14 November 2010

Valhalla Rising

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.


Walter Rhein said...

Wow...I've never even heard of this film. How much Norse mythology is present? Is there any more than just the use of the name Valhalla?

James said...

Walter - there's no norse mythology present. It's made clear that One-Eye's captors are pagan, but there's no references to norse mythology. As I said in the review, there's more of an emphasis on Christianity.

The Fantasizer said...

Pointless mixed together with unresolved weirdness, times infinity sums up this film pretty adequately. A film with no story, no characterization and one which is bound to frustrate one to the point of pulling ones hair out.
I finished it with my hand on the fast forward button.
Watch at your own peril! This film might just incite suicidal tendencies.

Jebus said...

Check out the Director's previous film, BRONSON, it shits all over this film.

Pip Hunn said...

Despite above comment-rage, I'm going to give it a go. Only because, from various recreational activities of mine, I know how hard the Norse hit :-)

Mimouille said...

The previous negative comments are clearly from people who do not appreciate this type of movie (contemplative and beautiful)...I totally agree with your review James...this is a movie not to be missed.

Anonymous said...

So this is the movie he directed first:

But Valhalla Rising looks and sounds interesting.

Kristopher A. Denby said...

I've wanted to see this since Niall posted about it back in February, but if it ever crossed the pond and got a release I never heard about it. Now I've got 7 more days before it hits Netflix. It's in my queue already and I can't wait to see it. Your review only makes me more interested to see it. I like the idea that it's not a straight forward blood lust-type actioner. And I'm just game for anything that can do Vikings sans the horned helms.

Ta ta!

Anonymous said...

i loved this movie. it almost makes me think that mads is the best actor ever. its a lot more challenging to create a character w/o a single word or noise passing from your lips. i loved how i could tell what he was thinking from his eye. i also loved his relationship with the kid. i found it a refreshing break from the wham bam popular action movies. it was beautiful
so youll either like it or you wont. the plot is awkward and felt uncomplete but somehow it was fitting. if sad