Valhalla Rising **
Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn.
Written By: Roy Jacobsen & Nicolas Winding Refn.
Starring: Mads Mikkelsen (One Eye), Maarten Stevenson (Are), Gordon Brown (Hagen), Andrew Flanagan (Gudmond), Gary Lewis (Kare), Gary McCormack (Hauk), Alexander Morton (Barde), Jamie Sives (Gorm).
In the opening scenes of Valhalla Rising, I really thought that director Nicolas Winding Refn was going to make a great movie. The opening act is violent and brutal as we see the mute; appropriately named One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) chained to a pole, and forced to fight one person after another by his cruel overlords. These scenes are bloody as hell – and what’s more unlike most violence in the movies, it really seems to hurt. The blood, mud, gore and bone cracking hit hard, and you think you may be watching a new classic of the genre – in this case some sort of Medieval, Viking action film. Unfortunately, the film really does go downhill from there. The violence of the opening scenes will come back – again and again – throughout the movie but it gradually becomes clear that Refn doesn’t really have anything to say about any of what he is showing us. There are hints at buried themes about religious intolerance, but Refn seems more interesting in his visual tricks than anything else. I think he even does Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen) one better, as it seems like the entire third act is shot in super slow motion. What starts out fascinating and thrilling, quickly becomes rather dull, repetitive and boring.
While the silent hero recalls Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in the Sergio Leone spaghetti Westerns (and Mikkelsen certainly tries to be Eastwood, but no one is Eastwood other than Eastwood), and there are times when the sweeping landscape vistas call to mind Terence Malick, Refn’s biggest influence here is certainly Werner Herzog – that mad German visionary who films border on insanity at times. This is particularly true after the pagan One Eye falls in with a band of Christian Vikings on their way to the Holy Land, who (in the films most prolonged and boring sequence) get lost and end up in the New World. Here, the armor clad warriors head out in the wilderness of North America, and get slaughtered. Yes, it seems that Refn wanted to remake Aguirre, the Wrath of God in North America.
But after a while, Valhalla Rising turns into a game of “spot the influences” more than a film unto itself. One Eye is an uninteresting character, not because he doesn’t speak (although that doesn’t help), but because he remains a complete blank – we never even figure out why he gets those blood red premonitions of the future – they’re just there.
As a director, Refn shows a definite talent – that I cannot deny. There are images in this movie as haunting as anything I have seen this year. And yet, I do think he really needs to learn that sometimes less is more – if you play an entire movie like this ramped up to 11, it becomes tedious, not daring. His last film, Bronson, suffered in similar ways – but because it’s main character was so damn interesting, and played brilliantly by Tom Hardy in the role that probably got him noticed by Christopher Nolan, I forgave that film its shortcoming. Here however, I cannot. Valhalla Rising has some interesting things going on in it, and Refn is definitely a talented director to keep your eye on – but the film adds up to absolutely nothing.