My immediate post-viewing reaction of Valhalla Rising was confusing – even to myself.
I wasn’t sure what I loved about Nicolas Winding Refn’s most challenging film yet, what I liked and what I didn’t like. It was all so confusing.
Valhalla Rising begins in a most brutal Refn fashion. We’ve seen this before. It’s the authentic and realistic punishing violence from Pusher, Bronson and Drive. But because what we’re watching takes place in the dirt and mud of 1000 AD, it’s so much more brutal than we’ve seen before. There’s an extra level of grit and grime to Refn’s violent style this time.
Mads Mikkelsen plays One Eye, a mute warrior who seems stronger than any man should be. One Eye is held captive by some Norse chief dudes or something like that and made to fight other captive guys. It’s all so violent I don’t really care.
Mikkelsen really excels in this role. Despite not having a single line, his performance is strong and physically demanding. The fight scenes look all so real and punishing that I have to imagine Mikkelsen actually took a beating in at least a mental sense. His mute performance miraculously stands out among the rest in the film.
Where the film starts to lose you (depending on your taste in film and how much Refn) is when One Eye and The Boy (a youngster traveling with the group who has become fond of One Eye) starts to travel with the Christian band of Crusaders to the Holy Land.
Of course, this being a journey mandated and scripted by Refn, it isn’t going to be easy or normal. It’s going to be challenging and weird. The film only runs 90 minutes, but it feels like two hours. It’s a punishing and slow trek to the Holy Land and all of its understated and psychedelically forced into your brain. I don’t even really know where to begin in describing the bizarre sights, sounds, colors and thoughts that Valhalla Rising imposes.
This is a slow-burning, acid-fueled film. It’s not an easy film to watch, especially when you begin to compare the film’s opening moments to the film’s later moments. They’re two different types of filmmaking and storytelling. The story is told over six parts, all titled, giving you a decent idea about what to expect from things. Still, even though you can predict and expect about a chapter called “Hell” will give you, you really can’t, because no one can predict Refn’s mind.
Even with the things I didn’t like about this film rising to the top of my mind when I think about this film, I still found it fascinating. There’s something fueling its spirit that challenges me and I want to beat it. I want to find more. That said, I think Valhalla Rising is worth multiple viewings, if only to try and overcome what Refn is trying to beat you over and over the head with.