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.
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)