Nicolas Winding Refn and Mads Mikkelsen take you somewhere you won't soon forget
Published: November 24, 2010
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
Out on DVD Nov. 30 from IFC Films
The man looks absolutely insane. Stripped to the waist, his scarred torso is covered with some kind of inky markings; what isn’t inked is dusted with mud. His hair makes a dirty mop look clean. His left eye is missing, a cruel scar running from cheek to hairline in its place. His clenched fists are secured by loops of rope. Around his neck, a leather collar, by which he is tethered to a wooden pole in the middle of a muddy pool. Once his hands are released, two men attack him, one pulling him to the ground by the collar and then kicking him in the chest. When the roped man gets up, all his attacker has to do is retreat to just outside the rope’s reach. It doesn’t look like a fair fight at all.
Writer/director Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising reveals just how unfair this opening fight scene is in a bluntly quick succession of action. The secured man tackles one of his attackers, climbs atop him, and sinks his teeth into his throat; the subdued attacker’s legs futilely search for traction in the mud. The other attacker hammers on the roped man’s back, and he eventually pulls himself off the man’s throat with a flesh-ripping schffffck accompanied by an arterial blood gush. A head butt to the other attacker sends him to his knees, and the roped man loops his tether around this felled man’s neck, sprints in the opposite direction of his wooden anchor, and snaps the man’s neck like a twig. Nearly six minutes into this movie, not a single word has been uttered, the only sounds the animal-like grunts and gasps of men fighting for their lives.
What follows for the next 90ish minutes is just as primal, opaque, and obtuse. Danish director Refn is quietly turning into one of the most visually adventurous directors working today who remains relatively unknown in the States. His Pusher trilogy about a Copenhagen drug dealer was a Danish and European success, but 1996’s Pusher saw only a limited theatrical release in 1999 in America, as did the 2004 and 2005 installments. Refn proved himself a dependable storyteller and action orchestrator, but the Pusher movies firmly reside in the crime genre. They probably helped Refn get his 2003 Fear X made—a Hubert Selby Jr. co-scripted movie starring John Turturro—even though it didn’t see the theatrical light of day until January 2005.
With 2009’s Bronson, however, Refn unleashed his auteur ambitions. It’s the story of British bare-knuckle boxer Michael Gordon Peterson who, in the 1970s, turned to crime and was sent to prison, where his unhinged streak earned him a reputation as the “most violent prisoner in Britain.” Peterson changed his name to Charles Bronson—yes, after the Death Wish star—and Refn presents his life story almost as a cabaret of symphonic violence. Imagine Andrew Dominik’s Chopper art-directed by Derek Jarman’s filmmaking team and with what should have been a career-launching performance by Tom Hardy as the distressingly charismatic prisoner—Bronson is that level of an indelible, unforgettable jolt.
Valhalla comes from someplace even further afield. Set during what appears to be medieval Scotland at a time when Pagans are confronting Christians, it follows the story of the tethered man in the opening scene. Valhalla becomes some kind of metaphysical exercise for this mute killing machine, dubbed One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) by a young boy (Maarten Stevenson) for obvious reasons. One Eye’s kept captured by Scottish tribesmen for sport—they wager on the fights—until he finds an arrowhead in a pool and escapes, killing his captors.
The boy follows him, they run into some Viking Christian soldiers who are planning a trip to Jerusalem to reclaim the holy lands, and One Eye and the boy join them on their journey across the sea. Instead of ending up in the Middle East, they arrive at what appears to be North America, where they encounter an indigenous population. Refn structures this story into six individual chapters: Wrath, Silent Warrior, Men of God, The Holy Land, Hell, The Sacrifice. Large chunks of it take place without dialogue. One Eye occasionally has visions, which Refn notes by switching to red-tinted stock that is a tad Dr. Who. And the soundtrack music, provided by Peter Peter and Peter Kyed, moves from Ligeti-like haunting atmospherics to rhythmic guitar and percussion drones.
The possibility for taking all of this as grandiose pretension is high, for the movie offers no real avenue into its realm if you don’t submit to it from the first frame on. As a story, Valhalla is frustratingly enigmatic. As a cinematic immersion in one director’s hallucination, however, it’s a consistently riveting experience. Whole scenes and chunks of it speak with the logic of cave paintings: You’re not sure exactly what they’re trying to say, but they’re burrowing themselves deep into the brain. And single images cling to the retina: a man, bleeding out, kneeling atop a hillside contemplating the world he see before him for the last time; a man’s hand gripping air as you hear him being disemboweled; One Eye stacking stones with an unfathomable sense of purpose. Just what Refn might be trying to say with this movie never really gets articulated—in fact, One Eye’s muteness makes him a fascinating vessel to project meanings onto—but, as with Lars von Trier’s Antichrist, very few movies try to take you to wherever the hell it is Valhalla Rising ventures.
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