Lead Critic; Brooklyn, New York (@floatingartist)
[With the film premiering at IFC this weekend, here is another take. Our thanks to Aaron Krasnov for the review]

Valhalla Rising is a spiritual journey, a meditation on what happens when one reaches beyond corporeal means; a quest towards God, the Sangreal, or Nirvana. Away from the temporal and toward company with the preternatural. A fever dream of viking mythology, religious fervor, mono-saturation and prophetic parable; building from brutality into an aberrant vision of ascension.

The journey follows a group of Christians on crusade for Jerusalem, escorted by a stoic viking seer and a vagrant youth. Subjected to hellish torments the group must persevere amongst intangible foes and natural hardship as they struggle towards their religious sanctuary. Delivered in six chapters, each with title card describing the events to come, the film breaks down into a 3 act structure.

Each pair of chapters a major phase of the journey (assemble, venture, resolution), each singular chapter an event or discovery. Influenced by El Topo, Heart of Darkness, and Aguirre: The Wrath of God the film depicts a dark and oppressive vision of where we may not be welcome. What Nicholas Winding Refn described during Q&A as reaching past the stars into the blackness, toward what we cannot comprehend.

Front-loading the physical violence the film opens with Mads Mikkelsen in a make shift prison cage match. Tied to a post by a lengthy bit of chain, prisoners are pitted against each other to the death for the amusement of their captors. The violence is brutal as Mads dismantles his opponents without uttering a word. CG blood is used throughout the film for budgetary reasons and stands out a bit too much for my tastes, especially during the intimate violence of the first act. As the day comes to a close we get our first glimpse into what the film will be, Mikkelsen, who's desiccated visage earns him the name One-Eye, is prone to dream like clairvoyance. One-Eye's prophetic visions declare the future, present and parallel; a still pond is conjured, an arrow extricated into reality, a destined gift granting freedom, through bloodshed, and driving the viking seer towards the crusade. Abrupt and initially a bit confusing the visions intertwine themselves with reality, establishing an intensifying rhythm that echoes the journey.

The crusade and the rest of the film continues with little dialog, the Christians ask questions, the vagrant child explains and the conjured utter prophecy as the visions become increasingly hallucinatory; prone to stark red and blue saturated closeups of Mikkelsen staring, while hostile metallic noise imposes on the landscape. The methodical spiraling dread repeating and building upon itself, escalating in tone until it ultimately collapses in resolution. Not a popcorn film by any stretch and certainly not the viking adventure shown in the recent trailer, Valhalla Rising reminds me more of Amer than any other recent film, using imagery and music to convey themes with little reliance on traditional storytelling techniques. The second half of the film is a bit overwrought for my liking. Repetitious mono-chromatic visions accompanied by doom-metal and ambient gloom wore down my tolerance for where the film was headed.

One-Eye's dreams are not immediately comprehensible and provide for some jarring thought exercise as the plot is pieced together. Refn's gritty sanguine aesthetic makes the film a joy to look at but ultimately the trip was not one I would enjoy taking again. Refn remains one of my favorite working directors, the film having done nothing to sway that, and I look forward to his Thai neo-western with the utmost anticipation (the upcoming asynchronous noir doesn't sound too bad either).

Valhalla Rising premieres at IFC on July 16th

Valhalla Rising

  • Nicolas Winding Refn
  • Nicolas Winding Refn
  • Roy Jacobsen
  • Matthew Read (additional writing)
  • Mads Mikkelsen
  • Alexander Morton
  • Stewart Porter
  • Maarten Stevenson
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Nicolas Winding RefnRoy JacobsenMatthew ReadMads MikkelsenAlexander MortonStewart PorterMaarten StevensonAdventureDramaFantasy

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