Before The Neon Demon There Was: Valhalla Rising

Andrew reviews Refn's Norse period adventure, Valhalla Rising.

Still reeling from the fallout of the failure of Fear X, Danish provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn worked feverishly to rebuild his production company by accepting any work he could.  Whether that meant making two Pusher sequels, directing a television episode of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple or accepting the task of turning the story of Britain's most notorious prisoner into Bronson, the iconoclastic director and close competitor to Lars Von Trier as Denmark's cinema giant in this transitional period set his sights on another project he freely admitted he had zero interest in doing: a Norse Viking period adventure film called Valhalla Rising.  Loosely influenced by Kenneth Anger and Werner Herzog with just a hint of Refn favorite Mario Bava, the nightmarish and hallucinatory self-proclaimed 'acid trip' began pre-production while the workaholic Refn was still putting the finishing touches on Bronson.  Initially planned as a transposition of the style of Pusher into the swords and sandals cutthroat period with heavy overtones of metaphysics, religion and brutal ultraviolence, the film instead evolved into an ethereal slow burn largely driven by total silence, vast open Scottish landscapes and an otherworldly outlook of our natural world as a kind of extraterrestrial necropolis.  At the risk of sounding cliched, the resulting film is closer to Herzog's Aguirre, the Wrath of God than any other film in living memory.

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Starring Mads Mikkelsen as One-Eye, a mute yet larger than life Norse warrior who is either God-like or demonic, Valhalla Rising is divided into six chapters ala Lars Von Trier with a dash of Andrei Tarkovsky thrown in for good measure.  The film more or less concerns One-Eye and a young boy he takes under his wing and their journey with a band of Crusaders in search of the Holy Land, but this is far from a plot driven film.  Sonically thanks to regular composer Peter Peter and featuring gritty yet gorgeous looking cinematography from Pusher right hand man Morten Soborg, Valhalla Rising is an experience of a time period and state of mind with the hypnotic power of a lucid dream.  We're seeing characters trudge the rocky and fog laden terrain of the Scottish mountaintops but with a heightened reality that is intentionally unrealistic and far closer to surrealism.  Dialogue is minimal with the main character not uttering a single word and the score ranges from harsh percussion to sleep inducing ambience that would make the Aphex Twin's eyes start to close.  

Next asswipe that calls me Hannibal is going to meet my axe. 

What's interesting about Valhalla Rising's approach to the narrative is the close kinship it shares with both Fear X and Only God Forgives, moving at a deliberately methodically slow pace with an emphasis on almost dead silence.  That's not to say the audience is left to do all the heavy lifting but rather it becomes a pure experience for the viewer where more is felt and heard than readily understood.  Refn himself went on to say Chang from Only God Forgives more or less is One-Eye whose superhuman ability to do extreme violence while maintaining a distant and cool calm.  Further still, those familiar with the director's Cannes Film Festival favorite Drive will inevitably trace Ryan Gosling's benevolent sociopath with a code of violence that excludes children at the risk of self-sacrifice to One-Eye.

With Valhalla Rising, despite being a minimalist production and resulting film, Refn has fashioned a truly mesmerizing historical epic of bloodshed, pentecost, brimstone and treacle.  Much like Refn's two kid cousins in his filmography, the film is less about what you take away from it than the feeling of being dropped into it's thickly atmospheric netherworld which takes a familiar moment in world history and filters it through the prism of a horror film laced with Dimethyltrptamine.  Not everyone will enjoy it, finding it like the monolith in Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey: totally smooth yet devoid of noticeable surface features.  

Fans of the far faster pacing of Drive and Bronson are in for something akin to a transcendental yet often wordless religious journey into great silence with Valhalla Rising which can be trying for some but enlightening for others.  I myself found the middle chapter of Refn's loosely defined Silent Warrior trilogy to be a captivating entry in the idiosyncratic auteur's oeuvre and proof positive there's more up this Danish auteur's sleeve than purveying fetishistic bloodletting.  Mythological, spiritual and often maddening, this deliberately snail paced slow burn into archaic Norse iconography with the gloriously craggy Scottish mountains serving as the film's Bosch-like backdrop is relentlessly fascinating and compulsively watchable for those who prefer their blood soaked machismo infused historical epics a little bit more bold yet rich.  


- Andrew Kotwicki