Amidst evocative backdrops, oppressive gray skies, and centered around a violent, silent protagonist with one eye and a penchant for violence, Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Valhalla Rising” burns itself into the viewer, even if it doesn’t make the best use of its sparse runtime.
Mads Mikkelson plays One-Eye, the medieval-era slave who fights, and always wins, for his Viking masters. One-Eye is a brutal fighter, routinely dispatching his opponents quickly but viscously. Refn displays a knack for action scenes here. With a steady camera, he shows the skill in One-Eye’s fighting style, thankfully neglecting shaky cam. And Mikkelson’s quiet, brooding performance imbues One-Eye with a menace believable enough that he seems like a man who could go off at any time.
After he kills his masters and absconds with a young boy at his side, he meets a group of Christian warriors who take him in to fight the holy fight in Jerusalem. But things don’t go according to plan as they take a Joseph-Conrad style trip. Yes, if there was one film to compare this to, it would be Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” As the characters travel into unknown territory, it becomes clear that their physical journey is as dangerous and unnerving as their spiritual journey.
Typical for Refn, this film is visually stunning. Dreary hillsides draped in gray, overcast clouds are intercut with dreamlike sequences. Refn’s deftly uses color, mostly blues and reds, to convey information to the audience. The ambient music coupled with Refn’s surreal visuals also help to convey the characters’ descent into insanity as well as make the audience feel a little crazy.
Clocking in at just over 90 minutes, the film doesn’t feel like it makes the best use of its time. While Refn effectively, and sometimes hauntingly, lingers on characters and scenes for dramatic purposes, he sometimes lingers too long. Many scenes go on long after the audience gets the point of the scene or action, while others are a bit confusing. As for plot, there really isn’t much, and to describe the events of the film in detail would be spoiling. Suffice it to say, the themes of religion, superstition, heroism, and insanity are interesting enough that the film’s lack of brevity are worth sitting through.
“Valhalla Rising” isn’t perfect, but it is interesting and thought-provoking. To simply sit through it passively without contemplating what each surreal dreamscape or act of violence really means would be doing yourself a disservice, since that is how you will get the most enjoyment out of this film.