Valhalla Rising opens with a cryptic introduction saying that at the dawn of time there was man and nature. Then men bearing crosses drove the heathens to the fringes of the earth. It sets the stage before we are introduced to the protagonist, One-Eye (played by Danish actor Mads Mikkelsen). He’s a mute Norse warrior with one eye (hence the name). In the beginning he’s held captive and bound with a chain around his neck by a Viking chieftain (Alexander Morton). Near as anyone can tell, the chieftain’s only use for him is to have him fight other men to the death. One-Eye soon manages to escape and get his brutal revenge on his captors. The rest of the plot follows him, along with a small boy (Maarten Stevenson) who fed him while he was captive, as he joins up with Christian Vikings who are in search of a crusade in Jerusalem. Their ship is lost in a dense fog and they find themselves in a strange new land.
The movie is told through a series of six individually named parts (Wrath, Silent Warrior, Men of God, the Holy Land, Hell, and the Sacrifice), documenting the Vikings descent into chaos and madness on a biblical scale. Nicolas Winding Refn, who directed the film as well as co-wrote it with Roy Jacobsen, weaves the story as an abstract and thought-provoking examination of barbaric violence and religion. The pace is slow and the detachment from the characters and plot is reminiscent of Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Similarly, the characters are picked off by natives who they can’t see as they traverse the unfamiliar and foreign environment, starved and half-crazed. Paranoia, depression, and general despair settle in quickly as the Vikings believe they’ve arrived in Hell. Their general (Ewan Stewart) loses all traces of sanity as he tries to create a “New Jerusalem” by himself while One-Eye is guided by a seemingly inevitable fate.
One-eye as a character is nearly impossible to understand or relate to. He doesn’t speak, he kills brutally, and he experiences prophetic visions of future events in his dreams. The boy speaks for him when he needs to vocalize anything (which isn’t often), but their relationship is as obscure as he is to the rest of the characters and events. He’s a pure being in that his life is guided by hatred and violence. It’s the sum of his existence from beginning to end. He’s a stoic and morose figure until he has to defend himself or the boy. The simplicity of the character is countered by the visual complexity of the themes. The Christian Vikings destroy themselves and are motivated by their religion and greed. There’s a visually fascinating scene in which the Vikings share a psychotropic brew and act out apathy, desperation and other such emotions.
The style of the film is that it flows at an increasingly erratic pace while the characters get deeper into the new world. Many scenes are without any dialogue or action, instead relying on the atmosphere and setting to involve the audience and build on the story. Taken separately, the characters aren’t very interesting and the story feels familiar in its similarity to films like Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now. The cinematography however, is stunning and there are some mesmerizing scenes. It was shot in Scotland and there are often long takes showcasing the beautiful scenery as the backdrop to the brutal and savage characters. There’s a grainy and gritty look to the film which gives it a sense of realism despite the often surreal and bizarre imagery and story.
This is also an extremely violent movie despite its lack of action. The violence, though small in quantity is grizzly in its depiction. When One-Eye is forced to defend himself, he does so in a brutal and often horrific manner. He’s less a character and more of a force to be reckoned with. No human can hurt him unless he allows them to do so. Mads Mikkelsen is an intimidating figure as the character and looks completely convincing as one of the most dangerous men alive at the unestablished time of the setting.
Although at times Valhalla Rising feels like its overly artistic style is to compensate for a simple story with simple characters, it’s an unusual and interesting movie. It’s evocative and atmospheric and more interested in generating an emotional response than to present conventional action in a period piece.