LIST CANDIDATE: VALHALLA RISING (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Nicolas Winding Refn

FEATURING: , Maarten Stevenson

PLOT: A mute, one-eyed slave escapes from his Viking captors and joins a group of Christians sailing to the Holy Land to join the Crusades.

Still from Valhalla Rising (2009)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  After a leisurely beginning that gets by on atmosphere, Valhalla rises to some low-budget, low-key weirdness in its third act.  But although the movie’s wonderfully shot and recorded and full of ominous portent, the thick symbolism is so open-ended that it becomes empty, leaving little to no impact in the end.

COMMENTS:  With Valhalla Rising, Nicolas Winding Refn appears to be trying to answer the question “what happens when you make a religious allegory, but leave out the allegory part?”  After triumphing with Bronson, a heavily-stylized, slightly weird movie built around a larger than life testosterone tanker, Refn turns to minimalistic cinematics to mysticize another masculine archetype.  Valhalla Rising arrives as a weirder, but weaker, outing, because the mute tattooed warrior slave One Eye is not as sharply drawn as Charlie Bronson.  It was clear what Bronson wanted—to become the most notorious prisoner in Britain, no matter how many beatings he had to take and how many hours he had to spend in solitary to get the title—and his mad obsession drove the film.  One Eye remains a mystery throughout; after escaping from captivity in the first act, he has no agenda for the rest of the film, but drifts from continent to continent with the tide.  He has blood-soaked visions of the future and builds a cairn; because he has nothing better to do with his time, he hooks up with a band of Christian crusaders heading for the Holy Land.  These people, at least, have motivations—after their ship gets lost in the doldrums and drifts to a land covered in unspoiled primeval forest, their leader decides to establish a New Jerusalem and convert the savages.  This development leads Refn into to a mini-tribute to Herzog‘s Aguirre, The Wrath of God, as the Crusaders travel downriver while being picked off by unseen savages firing arrows from the shore.   But the focus remains on the inscrutable One Eye, who travels with the suspicious Christians (who admire and fear him for his martial abilities), but he remains unreachable and aloof.  He strikes with deadly force when they threaten the closest thing he has to a friend, the boy Are; in later reels, he chops some of them up for no clearly explained reason.  At the end of the movie One Eye turns into an improbable Christ figure, and presumably shuffles off to Valhalla.  Portraying the scarred slave, who between bloodlettings spends most of the movie staring at distant horizons with an unreadable expression, as an ambiguous figure apart from humanity is a deliberate choice; but making the main character a mute cipher with no overriding motivation is a gamble.  With no narrative drive, the story often lags, symbolized by a long section where the crew dehydrates and lies about listlessly on the ship’s deck when the expedition is trapped inside misty doldrums on the Atlantic Ocean.  Fortunately, Refn creates a tremendous atmosphere of foreboding beauty, full of images of weary, weathered men framed against verdant mountains and a keening soundtrack, to carry us through when the story limps along.  The mood combines Sergio Leone’s sparse machismo with Andrei Tarkovsky‘s quiet mysticism, and if the story fails to draw us in, at least the scenery is spectacular.

The Norse deity Odin, chief of the Gods and lord of Valhalla, the afterlife’s feast hall for warriors, is often known as “the Wanderer.”  He legendarily tore out his own eye in order to gain the wisdom of the gods.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Mr. Refn, who can pull off stylish brutality (in the ‘Pusher’ films and ‘Bronson’), shows no knack for the kind of visionary, hallucinatory image making that would render ‘Valhalla Rising’ memorable.”–Mike Hale, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

11 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: VALHALLA RISING (2009)”

  1. [this comment by “steve85” has been copied and pasted from the Suggestion thread, where it was originally posted]

    …surely it is weird enough to be on the list, it’s at least as weird as Bronson and just as good, in my opinion – maybe even better. I admit that I was baffled by the film at first, I could not understand what Nicolas Winding Refn was trying to say, but I watched it again because I found it incredibly atmospheric, and I noticed a few things that I hadn’t noticed before. I’m not sure how much I should say (I’m thinking of spoilers), but I will say that I don’t think it has all that much to do with Odin specifically, or even any religious figure in particular, though I think it is in that ballpark thematically. The film can be interpretated in different ways, so it’s just my opinion, but I’m convinced I’m on the right track (though not 100% that my interpretation is entirely correct, and there are parts that I don’t understand at all), there are parts towards the end of the film that I would say make it obvious what the film is about. Please, I ask that you watch it again with a few things in mind:

    What is One-eye’s motivation throughout the film? If “he’s driven by hate, it’s how he survives”, what hate is he driven by? How does he survive?

    One-Eye never speaks, so how does he communicate with people? In what way do people interact with him?

    There’s a scene towards the end which is probably the weirdest scene in the film and involves a certain liquid. What does One-eye realise at this point? What do (at least some of) the Christians realise at this point? The viewer is virtually battered with symbolism here – what do the Christians do at this point? What has changed? What is the significance of the liquid?

    What is the significance of water in general throughout the film? (I am not 100% on every aspect of this one.)

    In the conversation on the hill between two of the Christians, what do they (blatantly) say is the reason they went on the quest in the first place?

    I know that’s not much to go on, but I think those clues will at least help you see where I’m coming from, even if you don’t agree with me. If you can see that there is something beneath the surface of Bronson, then do you not think that there could be more to Valhalla Rising than you first thought? If Bronson is about the worship and mythologising of violence, then Valhalla Rising is about worship and mythology in general.

  2. steve85: I second guess myself a lot, and Valhalla Rising may be one of those cases. The film is both weird and good, though it seems to me that maybe the part which is good isn’t weird, and the part that is weird isn’t that good. At any rate I probably was too quick to dismiss it, so I “promoted” it to a candidate for the List, meaning it’s eligible to be reconsidered. I will keep your observations in mind when/if I write about the film again. I am honestly not 100% sure where your questions are intended to lead, but they suggest to me that the film may be more about Christianity itself than it is about Northern European paganism or (strictly speaking) the relationship between Christianity and paganism.

  3. In fact, if you could delete the posts I wrote today, that would be good. I am in the middle of writing a more coherent version, and in doing this have come to disagree fundamentally with some aspects of what I wrote before. Trust me, this makes more sense. Thanks.

  4. OK, thanks. This is what I’ve got so far, it’s not as coherent as I’d like, but it’s the best I can do right now. I’m not the best at expressing my thoughts via the written word, so bear with me. This is all opinion, and I’m stating that now. I don’t think this is the definitive interpretation, not even close, I’m not even sure it makes sense. Also, bear in mind that I haven’t seen the film for over a month, so I’m a little hazy on some points.

    HUGE VALHALLA RISING SPOILERS BELOW!!! READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

    I think the film might be something like the story of mankind, done in the style of a myth. I think One-Eye is a projection, amongst other things, and Valhalla Rising is the story of man projecting the way he sees himself onto the world and then worshipping that projection. In other words, Valhalla Rising is the story of man worshipping himself.

    At the start of the film, One-Eye is kept in a cage, like an animal, food and water are brought to him by the boy, occasionally (quite often, it would seem) he is brought out to fight others of his kind. The guys he fights at this point have the same kind of tattoos as One-eye, the different clans possibly have their own version of One-eye. These are used in a kind of “mine’s better than yours” way, and then exploited for money. One theory on how religion might have started is that different tribes/clans/whatever each had there own special animal, which they would use in a kind of “mine’s better than yours” way, these later evolved into various pagan gods. (Obviously, I’m simplifying.) This is what seems to be happening, One-eye is basically an animal at this point, a pet, if you will, fighting others of his kind. It’s possible (probable, in my opinion) that early man saw himself as an animal, just like any other, as evidenced by many so-called ‘primitive’ cultures that exist today.

    After escaping from his pagan captors, One-Eye ends up bumping into some Crusaders because they could use a good fighter like One-Eye, so this pagan archetype tags along with them. They believe that war cleanses the soul, and see themselves as holy warriors, spreading the word of God through violence. They have three guys that seem to be in charge: a father and son (I can’t remember their names, sorry), and a guy who Wikipedia says is called Kare (I will call him Kare), at this point the three appear to be on the same wavelength, (more on this later). For the time being, I will refer to the father as Sean Connery (he looks a bit like Sean Connery to me) and I shall call the son Sean Connery’s son. Their boat journey represents the age of discovery, notice the obvious parallels with Columbus. I think water might represent knowledge. In this boat journey they are floating on a sea (of knowledge) surrounded by an immense fog (of ignorance). Some of them believe that One-Eye is taking them to Hell, and they attack the boy (who may represent free-thinking, I’m not sure). One-Eye simply kills the aspect of Christianity that attacks the free-thinker (?), and they agree to leave it at that. At first when one of them (some aspect of Christianity) tries to drink the water (knowledge), it kills him, he is thrown into the water, gone forever. One-Eye drinks the water and they (first of all the ginger guy, who will henceforth be referred to as Ginger Guy) see that it is good for them, they drink it up, the fog starts to disappear.

    After they land, they realise, due to the vast amounts of lakes and trees and so on, that they have not reached the Holy Land. The natives have left a load of freaky stuff lying around. I think the natives represent some aspect of nature, and the crew are spooked by what they learn of the natives (nature) in this new land (of knowledge). Sean Connery sees this new land (of knowledge), and believes it is possible to found a new Jerusalem here, the others are skeptical. Some of them cannot take it and Ginger Guy expresses a desire to return to the fog, but Sean Connery is determined to keep going. By this point, one of the crew has gone missing (he’s gone off to be with nature or something), but they decide to carry on without him. They get back in their boat and sail down a river towards a new sea (Wikipedia says otherwise, so feel free to correct me, but I don’t believe they ever decide to turn around, either way . . . we can make it fit, heh heh). One of the crew is killed by an arrow (nature destroying an aspect of Christianity – a new discovery?), and, freaking out, they all jump into the water. The weird scene with the trip-out liquid (special water – lots of knowledge) represents the enlightenment. The drinking of the liquid would be the enlightenment and the weirdness would be its consequences. During this scene there is a shot of a man floating face down in the shape of a cross (you surely see where this is going), another man has two knives held in the shape of a cross, he dips them in the water, and pulls them apart, holding the knives out in front of him (this is done very deliberately, from what I remember). One of them starts stabbing the earth (man’s increased ability to . . . well, violate the earth). Ginger Guy rapes another guy – man’s increased ability to hurt man, or possibly just the nihilism that follows lack of belief, maybe both. Later, Ginger Guy says “there is no God” (incidentally, redheads traditionally represent evil in Christian art), and some of them try to kill One-Eye – atheists try to kill God? I’m not sure. The trip-out scene is also the point where One-Eye realises that he will die (there is no God). Sean Connery merely sees the glory of God all the more (funnily enough, he was the one that caused the enlightenment, albeit inadvertantly). The man who went off to be with nature inexplicably finds the crew, he tells the Christians that their all going to die (end of Christianity), and claims that One-Eye can predict things (man turning to the worship of science).

    After this there is a conversation between Sean Connery and Kare. This represents the split between fundimentalism and modern liberal Christianity (or maybe the fundimental and modern liberal sides of any religion of this type) – the “would you turn your back on me?” conversation. Kare (the modern liberal Christian) thinks they should follow One-Eye (who now represents the worship of science – or man as God), Sean Connery (the fundamentalist) cannot accept this and stays behind to be killed (never to progress past the enlightenment), standing waste deep in water (knowledge), by the natives (nature), along with most of the other Christians (various aspects of Christianity). The modern liberal Christian is wounded (by his association with the fundamentalist), and he is torn between following One-Eye (worshipping science) and the fundamentalist, he follows One-Eye up to a point, but, following a conversation with Sean Connery’s son, in the end follows neither. This conversation is important, they both admit that the whole reason they went on the quest in the first place was because they wanted to be with their dead relatives, this is why the son of the fundamentalist also ‘goes back’, and possibly is the reason why the modern liberal Christian cannot follow One-Eye, or, even better, the boy.

    I think the boy’s boat crossing at the end (that one-eye has supposedly predicted, but does not take place during the film) represents a potential second age of discovery which would be undertaken without One-Eye. This is the journey into space, to pastures new. How unlikely it is that this journey could be completed is obvious, but it is possible, and One-Eye (science, man as a new God) said it would happen. It is as though One-Eye has taken the boy as far as he can, and dies with dignity (is killed by nature). The boy must face his next journey without his imaginary friend. One-Eye is submerged in water (knowledge), the projection is dead. Finally, man is seen by himself for what he is: man.

    Animal > Warrior > God > Man

    Beginning > Middle > Climax > End (roughly)

    I guess it might seem strange to say that One-Eye kind of represents God [i]and[/i] science at different points of the film, but many years ago religion and science were inseparable. Certainly, the way people interact with him is similar to the way people interact with their respective Gods – they ask him questions, guess his answers, and even act upon those answers. Science came from religion, and has become a thing that is arguably worshipped in its own right, in a different way. One-Eye never claims that the boy will build the boat and complete the journey. It is only man’s interpretation of what he sees in nature that causes him to believe that he will one day find a new home for himself in space, even though the chances of this happening are extremely slim at best. Again, though, it [i]is[/i] possible, and we are still young. Nicolas Winding Refn said something like “see Valhalla Rising if you want to go into space” and I think that might literally be what he meant, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek way.

    As I said before, perhaps the boy represents free-thinkers, or simply mankind, or the future of mankind. I really am not sure, as you can probably tell. I think the journey vaguely represents progress, maybe we’ve progressed to the point where we don’t need to worship things any more, but also enough to realise that we are kind of screwed. This interpretation is obviously incomplete and quite possibly just plain wrong, I’m not even sure that it makes sense, but I think it’s in the right ballpark. I don’t think it has all that much to do with Odin, as many others have said. I’m not even sure that Christianity needs to purely represent Christianity, I guess it could represent other religions of its type.

    I think some of the problem with this film is that it obviously requires interpretation (I’ve come up with a few, but this one is the best so far, I think), and the surface narrative is maybe not strong enough in its own right, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film as immediately intense as this one – that’s what made me want to watch it again. Part of me thinks this is one of the most amazing films I’ve ever seen. Another part of me thinks . . . WTF?

    P.S. Someone else pointed out in another thread (on IMDb) that the captured women seen towards the beginning of the film could represent the destruction of the female archetype in religion. Interesting thought. A random thought I had was that with the Sean Connery lookalike, his son, and Kare, there could be a kind of father, son and holy spirit thing going on, but probably not. Also, to leave the animal stage, One-Eye saw that the key was in the water, then submerged himself in it when he first got a chance – perhaps just because with knowledge we no longer perceived ourselves as animals? Again, I’m really not sure that makes any sense. Valhalla Rising = New Jerusalem = Science’s home in the sky? Who knows. Cheers.
    I think I will watch the film again pretty soon, so hopefully I can clear up a few things then. C

  5. steve85: You put a ton of work into that analysis, and that may be just what Refn wanted the viewer to do. So I hope that what follows doesn’t appear dismissive to you. I approach Valhalla Rising from a different direction, as a work of surrealism (actually, neo-surrealism) rather than as a work of symbolism. To put it simply, I am not sure the work “obviously requires interpretation.” A surrealist work deliberately and intentionally resists strict interpretation and rationalization.

    I think the fact that you had to work so long and hard to come up with an allegorical interpretation actually supports my initial statement that “Refn appears to be trying to answer the question ‘what happens when you make a religious allegory, but leave out the allegory part?'” The answer is that the viewer supplies the allegory. The human mind’s natural tendency is to order things and create meaning out of chaos.

    Another possible response to a work of surrealism is to cherish the mystery and resist the temptation to re-order everything and assign symbolic meaning to images to make them “make sense.” One might sit anywhere on the spectrum running from minute analysis of meaning to complete acceptance of a film’s inscrutability. My critical tendency is to focus on the big themes that emerge, but not to get into a detail-by-detail analysis unless its clear the author intends for me to do so (i.e. in a piece like Animal Farm, where the work is clearly a precise point-by-point historical allegory).

    An interesting comparison film is El Topo. There, every image held a specific meaning for Jodorowsky. He published a correspondence outlining the symbolism, all of which was so personal and private that the audience couldn’t possibly have guessed what each symbol meant. But I believe most people find the movie more satisfying considered as a mystery. Jodorowsky’s symbols lose potency when they’re reduced to the single meaning he intended.

    There is much that is good/great in this film, especially in its sensual elements (cinematography and music). I liked it, but the film’s particular imagery didn’t work as a whole for me. But I can certainly see how it would for others.

  6. I find this movie to be more of an outter body experience.It made 96 minutes feel like 5 but a lifetime just past by. I try not to think about what everything is supose to mean because it’s better for them to be what I portray them at the time. This movie sends me into an outermost experience for my imagination just like nine inch nails cd ghost 1-4

  7. The movie was…interesting. Just a side note: when one-eye has a vision of his own death (vs the savages on the rocks), he slices off a head and “throws down” so to speak with the savages but still ends up getting clubbed to death. When he had to face them in reality, he just dropped his weapons and accepted death. Definitely a movie about facing death. The only part that really puzzles me is the boy at the end….but then again someone has to live to tell the tale right? haha

  8. Definitely one of the most memorable movies I’ve seen, precisely because it is so weird and non-formulaic — like ‘Come and See’ or ‘Apocalypse Now’ in that regard. It made a lasting impression on me — esp. how bleak and unremitting it is. I think it shows a form of psychological hell — which is a world without love or hope — and is very explicit about that, calling one of the ‘acts’ “in hell” (or something like that). It is just a bleak world of violence, the fight for survival against man and nature, and a world devoid of meaning or purpose, except the insanity of fundamentalist religion. It is utterly bleak, like Come and See. There is no redemption. I think that is the real attraction of this film. It portrays the pointless of human existence in a unique way.

  9. I don’t know what it is, but it sure is something. Trying to come up with a rational explanation may be a lost cause, but an irrational explanation may be achievable. There are two things I know for sure:

    1. One-Eye is a manifestation of Odin. I mean really, it’s just too obvious.

    2. This is a story about the afterlife. In some ways, it reminds me of “The Third Policeman”, an extremely weird novel about a man who’s dead but doesn’t realize it.

    The word “Hell” appears many times in the movie, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if they’re talking about the Christian Hell, or the Norse Hel. What did the Norse believe about life after death? It’s actually hard to tell. The Norse seemed to have a pretty anarchic approach to religion, and never established a unified dogma. Valhalla and Folkvangr are parts of Hel, or they’re separate places, or the three names are synonymous, depending on who you believe. But one thing that was definitely missing from Norse beliefs is the idea that people are punished for their sins after they die (while this idea is obviously a big part of Christianity).

    This leads to one possible interpretation: that the warriors wind up in the Norse afterlife, (brought there by Odin himself,) and they have no idea what to make of it, because it’s not at all like the Christian afterlife that they’ve been taught about. But I have no idea how the ending is supposed to fit in with that.

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