Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn is famous in his home country and Europe for his Pusher movie trilogy, three gritty tales of life and death in the Copenhagen crime underworld. One of the big revelations from the Pusher movies is the exciting debut and discovery of actor Mads Mikkelsen. Many of you may not know Mikkelsen by name but I'm sure you would recognize him if I told you he played the role of Bond villain, Le Chiffre in 2006's Casino Royale. In 2009, Mikkelsen and Refn teamed up again, this time to make a period film set in the year 1000 AD.
Titled Valhalla Rising this movie is violence incarnate. It really is. The viewer can virtually feel and hear every skull cracked, every bone broken, every gut sliced opened and many other perverse ways that a human body can be mutilated. Mikkelsen plays a one-eyed nameless Viking warrior who is held captive by a Scottish clan and is forced to fight to the death against Celtic warriors from other clans for sport. Match after match, the Viking (nicknamed One Eye) brutally dispatches every opponent without even flinching. Skillful in the art of combat, strong, tough and without remorse, One Eye is the perfect killing machine and seems to be a loyal servant to his Celtic masters. The only person around that would dare go near the vicious Viking is a young boy named Are (Maarten Stevenson), who helps secure his chains every day and serves him food. When the perfect opportunity finally arises, One Eye makes his escape, killing his captors in the most cringe-inducing ways. With nowhere else to turn to, Are decides that it is probably better for him to follow One Eye (albeit from a distance) as they roam the Scottish highlands.
Soon, the unlikely duo come upon a band of English Crusaders, who are on their way to the Holy Lands to fight for their religious cause. Rather than risk getting into a fatal fight, the Crusaders managed to convince One Eye and Are to join them on their journey. After weeks upon weeks of drifting aimlessly on the open sea, they finally stumbled on land but it is not the destination that they initially set out for. Instead of the Holy Lands, they find themselves marooned in the wilds of the New World and facing the vicious wrath of a tribe of native American Indians.
At its core, Valhalla Rising is an uncomplicated but violent tale of one man's savage journey from one hell into another. However, it somehow manages to stumble badly across the finish line, converting a once promising premise into sort of a 70's head-trip film like no other. It is as if Refn ran out of original ideas on how to develop the story further and decides to cop out and deliver a swirling acid trip into the minds of the characters as they succumb to their own insanity. If Refn intended to deliver a ferocious but poetic film tinged with religious themes, Valhalla Rising only met half of its goals. It became a mesmerizing exercise in patience towards the end, probably losing most of the audience by that point as many won't be able to make heads nor tails of where the plot is heading.
The film starts out encouraging enough, giving the audience an epic picture of this silent but proud Viking warrior who is forced to kill for the entertainment of others. These opening fights will pummel your senses to its core. Once free of his slavery chains, I expected One Eye to plot revenge against those who have wronged him and go on a massive rampage across the highlands. Instead, the film devolves into a sticky mess that neither carries the story forward nor does it help the audience understand any of what is really going on in the final third of the film. If Refn had wanted to delve into the psychological madness of his protagonist, going on an isolated journey to nowhere with a group of religious wackos is not one of the better ways to do it. Especially hard to get through is the overly long boat journey that, apart from driving some of the men crazy, could have the potential of driving the audience into a deep snooze.
Valhalla Rising is divided into six titled chapters, “Wrath,” “Silent Warrior,” “Men of God,” “The Holy Land,” “Hell” and “Sacrifice,” each distinctively describing one part of the story, giving the audience a small glimpse into what to expect. As helpful as that is, it doesn't prepare us for the overt brooding or One Eye's flash-forwards that never gets explained away. Is he some sort of a fallen prophet sent to sacrifice himself for Man? Refn doesn't say and by the end of this convoluted psedo-arty movie, I really can't be bothered to ask.
Apart from the inspiring opening 30 minutes or so, the only other shining moment within Valhalla Rising is Mads Mikkelsen's astonishing performance. Every nuanced emotion (or sometimes the lack thereof) is delivered through his face alone, as One Eye is silent throughout the film. Even as Refn tries to slow things down in the second half of the film with some meditative and somewhat religious observations, it worked against the film and never gave the audience a chance to embrace or enjoy the once-promising plot.