Action Fest 2010: VALHALLA RISING Review

Founder and Editor; Toronto, Canada (@AnarchistTodd)
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Action Fest 2010: VALHALLA RISING Review
[My review of Valhalla Rising originally ran when the film premiered in Toronto but with it now screening at Action Fest I hereby present it to you again.]

You could say that the mark of a good film maker is that they give you want you want.  And if that is true then I suggest that the mark of a great film maker is that they give you what you want while also giving you something completely different.  And this is the case with Nicolas Winding Refn and Valhalla Rising. Now seven films into his career Refn continues ... not to change, exactly, but to continue finding new facets of himself and his work.

His long-discussed Viking project, Valhalla Rising has roughly the same relationship to a typical historical epic that Refn's lauded Pusher films have to The Godfather.  That is to say that it is a much more intimate, much more raw affair - a film that trades in technical gloss for the punch of brutal immediacy.  This is the part that we have come to expect from Refn, this is what we turn to him for.  The surprise in this case comes in the way that he weds the rawness to a sort of Terence Malick inspired lyricism, embracing a hypnotic approach to storytelling and editing that takes its cues not just from the film's mute lead character but - more importantly - from the harsh landscape that it explores.

Mads Mikkelsen stars as One Eye, a mute brute of a man enslaved and kept in a cage, brought out only to fight in brutal to-the-death unarmed combat for the entertainment and amusement of his masters, clan chieftans in the Scottish highlands.  But times are changing and things are not good for the clans.  Their old ways and old gods are under siege - literally, in this case, by Viking converts to Christianity who are spreading the gospel on the edge of a blade.  And when One Eye manages to make his escape - a brutal affair that leaves all the guards foolish enough to stand and fight him dead, dismembered and / or disembowelled - he, along with the young slave boy who tended him in his cage, take up with a band of these Viking crusaders, a group bound for the Holy Lands.  They end up somewhere else entirely.

In a risky move Refn here makes the lead of his film - and by far its biggest star - a total mute.  Mikkelsen not only never utters a word, he never so much as makes a sound, not even when in combat.  Perhaps even riskier was the abstract, experimental approach to dialogue and editing that gives the film a dream like quality, even in its harshest moments, with nothing that could ever pass as a full conversation ever taking place between any of the characters - mute or not.  That Refn turns these risks into assets in a testament to his talent.

 Less about the characters than its ideas - a fact borne out pointedly by only Mikkelsen being given any sort of name at all in the entire film and his being one forced on him by a child - Valhalla Rising is a film about change, bloody and violent change but change nevertheless.  Mikkelsen himself - a clear reference to Odin - is already a man out of place and out of time in this world, a man stranded on his own, a position that has led him through great hardship but also gives him a unique perspective on the battle between pagans and Christians raging around him, a battle he joins not to help either side win but simply because he can and fighting is all he knows to keep himself alive.  All of the characters here are less in control of their own fate than any will acknowledge willingly, all of them clinging to the idea that they carry some sort of larger destiny when in reality they are being carried along - literally for a large part of the film - by forces that they have no power or influence over.

By far the most abstract of Refn's work to date, Valhalla Rising makes a fascinating companion piece to Bronson.  Not only were the two shot nearly simultaneously but both find the talented Dane experimenting wildly with structure and character and how both impact his ability to tell the stories he wants.  Those raised on the multiplex will, no doubt, take issue with Valhalla's measured pace but for those willing to slide into its rhythm and world, the payoff is rich indeed.

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Nicolas Winding RefnRoy JacobsenMatthew ReadMads MikkelsenAlexander MortonStewart PorterMaarten StevensonAdventureDramaFantasy

More about Valhalla Rising

angelSeptember 9, 2009 10:31 AM

looks amazing cant wait to see it

abjectnuttinessSeptember 9, 2009 10:35 AM

seriously, some of the stills from this are just breath-taking (really liked the second trailer as well)! Hopefully it'll come to the states near-by. It'd be great to catch it on the big screen!

Kurt HalfyardSeptember 9, 2009 10:55 AM

It is going to be a real treat to see this in the WINTERGARDEN theatre, a classy and 'leafy' venue for this sort of gritty movie.

Rodney PerkinsSeptember 9, 2009 11:57 AM

I like this one, but I think sections of it are a bit of mess. Some of the "abstractness" actually seems to come from a lack of cohesion.

shamrock33September 9, 2009 12:03 PM

Trailer looks great – but that bit about him being saddled with a child is a little worrisome. Is this child/hero relationship like every movie where our mute/brooding/stoic hero is saddled with a child in order to convey his humanity and/or some sort of character depth our hero’s silence might not otherwise convey? That never works for me. Regardless I’m seeing this movie.

fhoomSeptember 9, 2009 1:42 PM

Raw brutal abstract viking lyricism? That sounds absolutely spectacular. We can at last purge ourselves of the putrid taste of the recent crappy viking themed films.
Shamrock, the child thing never works? Not even in Léon/the Professional? It worked wonders for me.
Never say never I say, it all depends on the artists.
Does the horn music in the trailer feature in the film? Sure hope so, I love that haunting sound.

Todd BrownSeptember 9, 2009 1:51 PM

Soundtrack is AWESOME.

shamrock33September 9, 2009 2:17 PM

fhoom - The Professional is about that hero/child relationship. Aliens is about that hero/child relationship. I’m talking about films that “saddle” the brooding hero with a child for expository reasons (a classic over used and over abused crutch). Todd’s review doesn’t give me the impression that Valhalla Rising is about that hero/child relationship.

kidlazarusSeptember 9, 2009 2:51 PM

Was sold on this from day one. I'm pleased to read Refn continues to redefine himself and does so with authority.

Generally Refn's films are dialogue driven, but, he has pulled off arresting well-near silent sequences in his films. Mads' One-Eye ("all-knowing father Odin") being mute should really be of no concern. After all it is moving pictures.

Kim Ki-Duk has made inspired, painterly work (some would say a career) of involving near mute protagonists. And, in mentioning Mallick, this is quite the company for Refn to keep.

thirsty&miserableSeptember 10, 2009 2:22 AM

"...he weds the rawness to a sort of Terence Malick inspired lyricism..."

Exactly what I was hoping for!

Sean "The Butcher" SmithsonOctober 6, 2009 11:45 AM

I can't see this soon enough. Refn is pretty much my favorite director at the moment.