If you were to look up the word ‘esoteric’ in the encyclopaedia, there would be a picture of the DVD cover of this film beside it. Or maybe not – it depends on whether you read Wikipedia or not, I suppose. Valhalla Rising (2009) is the very essence of what is known as ‘art house’ cinema these days.
Nicolas Winding Refn wrote and produced this spacy, often confusing and yet profoundly beautiful piece about the adventures and misadventures of a captured Viking kept as a prize fighter by a local chieftain in the remote Sottish highlands.
The story, such as it is supposed to be, follows ‘One-Eye’ (Mads Mikkelsen), a Viking with – yes – one eye, who is particularly adept at fighting and is kept locked and chained up between bouts, for reasons that quickly become obvious.
His name comes from perhaps the only funny line in the film – and believe me, the laughs are few and far between. Having no depth perception appears to be no barrier to the business of smashing people’s heads on rocks, strangling them and disembowelling them, which he does in some quite spectacularly grisly scenes.
He escapes his captors, killing them all except young boy slave Are (Maarten Stevenson) who was charged with feeding and looking after him in his fighting days. The two form an unspoken and uneasy alliance and travel together. They stumble across a band of rather unkempt and unlikeable Viking Christians, whose aim it is to reach the Holy Land and take back Jerusalem in the name of Jesus. One-Eye and the boy end up tagging along on their journey, for reasons that seem unclear if not just plain unlikely. They are becalmed in the fog, and eventually reach fresh water which, rather than being their salvation, is only the beginning of their troubles.
It’s round about now I would waffle on about the plot, the characterizations, the classic lines, etc. I can’t, because it would be a lie. One-eye never speaks. Not once, not even a guttural grunt or two – nothing. Valhalla Rising is not about him per se. It’s also not about Vikings or even, to a lesser extent, Christians. What is it it about, then? To answer that question, I would need to be Refn himself, although some background research confirmed at least some of my theories. Refn based the story on a single point of historical ‘fact’ – in Delaware, USA, a rune stone was found, suggesting that the Vikings may have been to America as early as the 14th century. This is hotly disputed, but this page has no space for debate – if you’re interested, it’s all here.
It seems clear (from an allegorical point of view, at least) that as One-Eye doesn’t utter a sound and that the boy speaks for him in all cases, that he’s some kind of deity, and the boy his prophet, as seems to be the set-up for the more popular religions. The band of ruffians and n’er-do-wells he hooks up with are generally in it for the money, having been promised untold riches in the Holy Land, and have no desire to remain in the barren, desolate highlands. Their exodus is an escape from a life they don’t want, and their journey almost like a trip across the Styx, but with their god already there. Is One-Eye their salvation or their nemesis? Are they on a journey to their personal promised land, or already doomed?
Existential questions aside, the camerawork is so atmospheric, it feels like you could sink your teeth into some of the imagery. It is quite, quite beautiful, particularly when conveying the oppressive, cloying nature of the mist-drenched highlands, or dimly lit and menacing, with tones of green and slate grey. Atmospheric it is, cheerful it isn’t. The flashes of, well, ‘premonition’ I suppose you’d call it, are in lurid contrast to the general tone, and can really jar when they thrust into your face. Arrival at the new land is heralded with a bright, new colour scheme suggesting some kind of deliverance or rebirth.
The soundtrack is at times practically non-existent, but suddenly you’ll notice it pop into your subconscious, highlighting something or adding to the soundscape almost like a small, nagging voice. At times building to an ear-punishing crescendo of noise, it really serves the feel of the film well, and reminiscent of John Cage, Brian Eno or even early Aphex Twin. Again, it’s not there to be enjoyed so much as endured, but it really sits well with the gritty subject matter.
Valhalla Rising is not a family film. It’s not a typical Viking hack and slash flick, either. Rather than writing another paragraph about what it isn’t, I’ll leave it up to you to decide. If I needed to summarize in five words, they’d be: haunting, strange, aggressive, allegorical, beautiful.