What do you get when a director known for uncompromising ultra-violence decides to do a period piece—set in 1,000AD Viking country, that is? In a word, a masterpiece.
Danish enfant terrible Nicolas Winding Refn (director of the cult hit “Pusher” series) made his latest film, “Valhalla Rising,” after an aborted attempt at making a “real” horror movie (Refn’s favorite film is the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”). But “Valhalla” itself almost qualifies for that title; it’s blunt, violent, and almost completely without dialogue. That being said it’s also hypnotically beautiful, and even the pretentiousness of Refn’s decision to label each section of the film (“Wrath,” “Hell,” “Sacrifice”) ends up, somehow, working in his favor.
The film follows Mads Mikkelsen, a frequent Refn collaborator, as One-Eye, a mute Viking mercenary with a badass facial scar who is being held captive by a band of nomadic warriors. The all-male group keeps One-Eye alive in order to make money off of his superhuman strength—they pit him against rival warrior captives for money, like dogfighting, and he never loses. One day, he decides he’s had enough and breaks free, killing almost everyone in the group except a young boy, who follows One-Eye around like an ersatz son.
The two strike out only to quickly fall in with a group of Christian crusaders bent on reaching Jerusalem. Eventually, One-Eye is convinced to go along on the journey, but inevitably things do not go according to plan. When the party finally reaches dry land (not Jerusalem – America) they have no idea where they are, and tensions rise. Refn makes much of the hypocrisy of these religious men, who sit around pontificating (and murdering each other) while One-Eye figures out the more mundane stuff, like finding food. One gets the feeling that Refn has rather strong feelings on the difference between real and artificial morality; One-Eye’s brutality is presented as crude but admirable, whereas the Brothers, bent on forcible conversion of the Pagans, are figured as monstrous in the extreme.
In the end, though, One-Eye can be interpreted as a messiah figure of sorts—a European invader sacrificing himself for the sins of all those who come after him. The film can easily be read as a reinterpretation of classic Greek epics, or perhaps as a retelling of “Heart of Darkness,” though none of Refn’s references are direct enough to make unpacking “Valhalla” an easy task. But it’s precisely this generous ambiguity that makes the film feel thematically (as well as literally) expansive. You can read into it whatever you want—or nothing at all. “Valhalla’s” meditative quality sets the film apart from any other old-school warrior flick you’ve ever seen; though it was shot primarily in Scotland, it’s as different from “Braveheart” as it’s possible to be. And trust me, that’s a good thing.
“Valhalla Rising” is currently available on DVD.