Review: Valhalla Rising (2009)

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Director: Nicolas Winding Refn | 93 minutes | drama, adventure | Actors: Mads Mikkelsen, Maarten Stevenson, Gordon Brown, Andrew Flanagan, Gary Lewis, Gary McCormack, Alexander Morton, Jamie Sives, Ewan Stewart, Mathew Zajac

Nicolas Winding Refn could just be a clone of Paul Thomas Anderson. Like his American colleague, the Danish director follows a self-mapped path where there is no room for concessions or interference. How else do you imagine shooting a Viking movie at a pace even slower than the red lantern in the Tour de France? He makes a film the way he wants it. As a viewer you can then drop out or follow. Call him cocky or stubborn, Refn is a director to cherish. Despite the presence in all his films of excessive violence. “Valhalla Rising” is no exception.

One eye is a stupid slave who must raise money for a Scottish clan by taking part in gruesome hand-to-hand combat. It seems like the only reason for this barbarian to exist. When he escapes and joins a group of Christian Vikings, a hellish journey sets in with the bloodshed continuing. In interviews, Refn claims he was eager to make “Escape From New York,” his favorite movie when he was a kid. The filmmaker had science fiction in mind, but without the technological fuss. In that respect, this film is kind of mental fiction. Those hoping for a rollercoaster of an adventure movie should leave the power button on their DVD player off. At times, “Valhalla Rising” looks like a hypnotic trip with perfect frames of extraordinary landscapes and meditative moments. The dialogues are very sparse, the music sounds menacing and bare. The Vikings’ quest to Jerusalem is reminiscent of Captain Benjamin L. Willard’s Calvary in “Apocalypse Now.” Where Francis Ford Coppola uses the Vietnam conflict to denounce the nonsense of war, Refn contrasts Christianity with mythology. He is thus clearly saying something about the hypocrisy of the “educated crusaders” who will, in the name of God, brush up on the heathen with the sword. For the viewer the question arises to what extent these Christians differ so much from those so-called barbarians and whether the end justifies the means?

The violence in “Valhalla Rising” is something we cannot ignore. A belly that is ripped open by hand, the cracking of a skull, One eye that bites open an artery,… Refn throws it in your face. But it must be said that the brutality looks very realistic and does not tend to the over-stylized that we know from many blockbusters. With One eye, a kind of Snake Plissken avant la lettre, Mads Mikkelsen portrays a memorable character, almost unearthly, that evolves visibly (slave, warrior, god, man), without even opening his mouth once. The actor’s posture and gaze are the only weapons he can use. It doesn’t make his performance any less. We can only bow our heads deeply. Nicolas Winding Refn has an incredible amount of guts that he dared to make this non-commercial film. A lot of viewers will undoubtedly drop out because of too difficult. It is not a peanut butter sandwich that you eat quickly, but those who take the trouble to chew will be rewarded.

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