Valhalla Rising: bloody and intelligent Viking saga or just bloody awful?

Valhalla RisingFinally having had the opportunity to watch Nicholas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising, I now appreciate why it was received so well at film festivals and yet failed to get a wide theatrical release. It’s hard going. On one hand it’s almost unbearably brutal and on the other it is layered with the sort of mind-bending symbolic meaning that leads the viewer to the brink of utter confusion and leaves them there to fend for themselves. In short, it makes demands of the viewer that no self-respecting Viking saga would dream of making! 

Refn has crafted a dark and brooding odyssey about a voyage across the ocean to lands unknown, but one that is also a metaphorical journey into the heart of darkness, and perhaps even a metaphysical journey by its protagonist toward some kind of awakening. There is no separation between the literal, the metaphorical and the symbolic and this is a recipe for confusion that rarely if ever translates well to the mainstream of cinema.

But what a cinematic experience! Valhalla Rising is quite possibly a work of genius.

Its reception by the mainstream has been complicated in part because of its defiance of expectations. Mention the word Viking and visions of bloody high adventure tend to come to mind. Even though Refn has a reputation for edgy, experimental and confronting filmmaking, it’s clear that many viewers of Valhalla Rising were sorely disappointed by it, expecting some kind of undemanding entertainment in the vein of Zack Snyder’s comic book fantasy, 300. Unfortunately the movie’s own marketing and DVD box art appear to promise 300 with Viking swords and battleaxes, but the reality could not be further from the truth. While there is blood and gore aplenty, it is brutally realistic and quite unlike 300's comic book violence.

Valhalla Rising or 300 with Viking swords and battleaxes?But more significantly, unlike action-adventures such as 300 or Prince of Persia, Valhalla Rising requires the viewer’s active participation. It demands to be interpreted, to be thought about, not merely experienced with a tub of popcorn (and frankly I defy anyone to eat anything and keep it down while watching the protagonist butcher and disembowel his enemies!). Refn’s Viking saga has far more in common with experimental cinema of the 70s and to those journeys into the heart of darkness immortalised by Coppola in Apocalypse Now or Herzog in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, perhaps even to classics of cinema like Bergman’s The Seventh Seal with its moody, evocative and stylised cinematography.

I can recall Australian radio presenter Clive Robertson contrasting Classical to Easy Listening music, describing Classical music as Hard Listening, but worth it. Well, Valhalla Rising is Hard Viewing, but worth it. It refuses easy understanding but Refn has crafted a thought-provoking cinematic experience, and great cinema, after all, is cinema that makes us think.

Valhalla Rising is set a thousand years ago as the old Norse beliefs give way to Christianity. In the beginning, we’re told, there was only man and nature. Then men came bearing crosses and drove the heathen to the fringes. The formula is simple enough: before Christ, man was closer to nature. As the story unfolds, a value judgement becomes apparent: the heathen was more Natural, untainted by the hypocrisy of those bearing crosses.

One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) is a mute warrior endowed with formidable strength and an uncanny ability to kill with ruthless efficiency. For years he has been held captive by a succession of clan chieftains, forced to fight in gladiatorial combats for entertainment and money. Treated as less than human and little more than an animal by all except a young boy, Are, the warrior's revenge is swift and hideous when he finally achieves freedom.

One-Eye and Are join up with a band of Viking converts to Christianity who set sail for the Holy Land on a Crusade to defend Christ’s Kingdom. The ship is becalmed and engulfed in an otherworldly fog that lifts only as they arrive, quite impossibly, at an alien shore. Cut off from the world they have known they begin a journey into the unknown and as they come to understand the doom that awaits them the Christians find themselves deep in the heart of darkness, believing that One-Eye has transported them to Hell. But if it is Hell, they carried it with them in hearts that are revealed to be dark with despair, madness, betrayal and hypocrisy.

Much could be said of Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as the mute warrior One-Eye, a remarkable feat in expressing his character’s integrity and inner life through an entirely physical performance. More could be said of Refn’s writing and direction which are masterful in their delivery of his thought-provoking and confronting vision. More should be said of Morten Søborg’s visceral cinematography which externalises the inner world of the characters in landscapes that are brutal, unforgiving and hauntingly beautiful. But all of these should be seen to be appreciated.

Valhalla Rising is confronting and challenging, perhaps too brutal to be enjoyed, but it is an experience to be relished and may well be a work of genius. Highly recommended. Unless you have a weak stomach…

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