Valhalla Rising (2009)
If Erik the Red had a nightmare…
Valhalla Rising is about a Viking warrior who has been forced into a life of slavery by his captors and survives by killing other Viking warriors in what can only be described as a Nordic version of The Thunderdome. Then he eventually breaks free, butchers the dudes that have been leashing him up all these years, finds an unlikely traveling companion in a little Viking boy and teams up with a group of Crusaders who are off in search of The Holy Land. Time sails by, their ship reaches land, they all come to the conclusion that their new companion may very well have led them straight to Hell on Earth, and so they try to make lemonade out of the situation by heading out in search of whatever it is they’re searching for.
I don’t know what triggered the sudden interest as of late, but no one was interested in this when it was briefly out in one independent theater in New York. But then all of a sudden it goes up on Netflix Instant and it seems like everyone around the blogosphere immediately bumped this to the top of their queue without skipping a beat. Maybe it was the cool title, maybe it was one of the few new releases on Netflix Instant that wasn’t the latest Gerard Butler rom-com train wreck, but whatever the reason, it’s cool as hell to see folks jump on this little bandwagon that could.
But as for me, the two things that peaked my interest way back when this first came out were the involvement of Nicolas Winding Refn and Mads Mikkelsen. The Viking thing? Not so much, but I’ll go with it. If you haven’t heard of the guy, Refn is the director behind one of the nicer surprises I’ve stumbled upon this last year, a charming little ditty that the whole family will love called Bronson. It was my first introduction to everyone’s favorite new badass, Tom Hardy, it was a biopic quite unlike anything I’d seen before, and it’s damn hard to forget a name like Nicolas Winding Refn. Still need to see his Pusher trilogy (also featuring Mads Mikkelsen), but all good things in due time.
Anyway, whereas Bronson was an insanely visceral, in-your-face movie with visuals and camerawork that nicely complemented its batshit crazy star of the show, Refn’s taken a very different approach to Valhalla Rising, and I dig that. Nice to find directors who mix things up.
My buddy Castor recently described this movie as “strangely hypnotic“, and I wish I had gotten around to reviewing this before him because that right there is a dead-on description. Yes, this movie is brutally violent, it left my jaw on the floor at times and it’s graphic in a way that can only be achieved with blades and blunt objects, but calling this an “action movie” would be a pretty misleading recommendation. If anything, it’s an experience, it’s like Refn had a dream about this movie, woke up and scribbled down everything he could remember, then book a flight to Scotland and rolled tape. It’s a slow, strange journey that doesn’t explain a whole lot and paints a picture that’s surprisingly tough to follow, but it’s also damn hard to look away.
To say that this movie is gorgeous is not doing it justice, to say that Scotland isn’t gorgeous would be like comparing the Hanging Gardens to the New Jersey Turnpike, and Refn makes the most out of what’s around him. God, you just can’t describe landscapes like these, but they seem otherworldly and it’s largely due in part to this aspect of the movie that everything else seems so dreamlike and terrifying. It’s far more of a meditation than it is an adrenaline rush and the super slow pacing won’t make you think otherwise.
There’s very little dialogue, conversations take ages to get through as though everyone has suddenly been transported into an M. Night Shamalamadingdong movie, and the start of the second Act almost put me to sleep. Like I said, not exactly an “action” movie. But by the same token, it’s intentionally slow and there wasn’t one moment where I wanted it to just hurry up already because the pacing plays an integral part to the mood Refn creates. It’s not for everyone and I can see this boring more folks than kicking them in the face, although it’s still worth a watch if only for the visuals.
And then there’s Mads Mikkelsen as our silent warrior with the most uninspired name in the land, One-Eye (’cause of that whole cyclops thing he’s rockin’). The only thing I or anyone else probably know Mads from is his turn as yet another hardcore dude with a wonky eye, Le Chiffre, but he kicked ass then and he kicks ass now. He doesn’t have a single line of dialogue, he only has one expression at his disposal since he doesn’t even hint at answering any questions folks ask him, yet somehow he pulls it off like a boss. I’m sure it helps when your first name is fucking Mads, but he’s just got one of those naturally intimidating faces that speaks volumes and the complete lack of dialogue actually made his character stand out that much more. People talk too much anyway, about time we got a killing machine who knows the power of shutting one’s piehole.
Everyone else is fine, you might even recognize a few faces that you can’t put names to, but everyone bows down to Mads.
So usually when I think of action movies with Vikings (a thought that rarely comes to mind), all I can think of is Uwe Boll for some reason, and that’s never a good thing. But at the end of the day, even though Valhalla Rising is a huge step forward for such a sub-genre, I couldn’t help but think to myself, “What was that all about?” And even after mulling it over for couple hours now, the best I’ve got is that it is what it is. As much as this – along with that snoozefest of a second Act – are the reasons that keeps it from being a 7, it’s its own little monster that’s clearly marching to the beat of its own drum, and while I appreciate that in a big way, the tempo could have been upped and the sound could have been clearer. All the same, it’s a movie worth checking out for those with strong stomachs and a hankering for something different.