Great Films You Need To See – Valhalla Rising (2009)

This is my latest contribution to The Big Picture, the visually focused film magazine that proves there’s more to film than meets the eye. The Big Picture is running a series of features and reviews throughout September with the theme of ‘the great outdoors’. This piece is part of the site’s Lost Classics section (featuring in my list of Great Films You Need To See), in this case the Nicolas Winding Refn’s Vikings and violence drama Valhalla Rising.

If “art is an act of violence” as the uncompromising Nicolas Winding Refn has attested, then his vicious Viking abstraction Valhalla Rising must surely belong in the Louvre.

Valhalla Rising - powerfully executed and arguably a distillation of Nicolas Winding Refn's ouevre so far

Valhalla Rising – powerfully executed and arguably a distillation of Nicolas Winding Refn’s oeuvre so far

Cut to the bone in terms of narrative and dialogue, the only thing more harsh than the inevitability of (often brutal) death in Refn’s powerful and primeval journey into apocalyptic dread is the bleakly beautiful Scottish landscapes in which the film was shot.

Coming off the back of Bronson (2008), Refn’s penchant for anti-heroes takes us back to 1000AD and Mads Mikkelsen’s One-Eye, a mute Norse savage who wreaks a terrible vengeance against his captors and, following his escape, agrees to accompany a group of Viking Christians in search of the Holy Land.

One-Eye’s only companion is a young boy (Maarten Stevenson), who believes the silent warrior has been delivered to this godforsaken place from hell. The group’s devout leader (Ewan Stewart) is confident that, by accompanying them on their quest across the ocean, One-Eye can be cleansed of his sins. The land they finally arrive at, however, is far from holy and no amount of faith can prepare them for the dawning realisation that they are trapped in purgatory.

You don't want to get on the wrong side of One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) in Valhalla Rising

You don’t want to get on the wrong side of One-Eye (Mads Mikkelsen) in Valhalla Rising

Valhalla Rising feels like a curious mash-up of the nihilism of Bergman and the bloodthirstiness of Mel Gibson, while its stark reminder of man’s hubristic folly in trying to conquer nature is Aguirre, The Wrath Of God-level Werner Herzog.

The film’s hellish, pared-back arthouse aesthetic is certainly not to everyone’s taste and might in part explain its disastrous box office returns, but such is the power of Mikkelsen’s towering central performance and Morten Søborg’s arresting cinematography that Valhalla Rising avoids becoming the cinematic equivalent of a coffee table book.

The Christian Vikings make set out their stall in Valhalla Rising

The Christian Vikings make set out their stall in Valhalla Rising

The insanity that grips the Crusaders is most effectively portrayed during the film’s central chapter (it is split into six parts with self-explanatory titles such as “silent warrior” and “hell”), in which their voyage across the ocean is met with disaster when a thick fog shrouds both the boat and their collective reasoning.

A crucifix is erected upon finally arriving at this new land, but it offers no safety from the arrows that are regularly loosed at them from the forest by unknown assailants, while the dearth of animals or fruit also eats into their dwindling faith.

The drugs don't work in Valhalla Rising

The drugs don’t work in Valhalla Rising

Their growing despair is allowed to manifest when they drink a psychotropic brew and their base instincts are unleashed in a scene that has the look and feel of a Godspeed You! Black Emperor video and could well have served as an influence on Ben Wheatley’s A Field In England (2013).

Mikkelsen is often filmed side on in extreme close-up, his immovable features set against the equally implacable landscape. Scotland has arguably never looked more alien or more beautiful and its unforgiving nature cruelly exposes the human weaknesses of the Christians, particularly the leader who is seemingly willing to sacrifice anyone in order to build the new Jerusalem he so blindly believes possible.

He's called One-Eye for a reason in Valhalla Rising

He’s called One-Eye for a reason in Valhalla Rising

Perhaps tellingly, the final two remaining Christians, when everything else is lost, take to following the heathen One-Eye, whether it be out of fear of death, an utter loss of faith or both.

The success of Refn’s follow-up Drive (2011) has cast a large shadow over the director’s career and sadly pulled the focus away from the likes of Valhalla Rising. It’s a pity as the film is powerfully executed and arguably a distillation of his oeuvre so far.

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12 comments

  1. le0pard13 · September 20, 2016

    This is certainly a fascinating film visually. You can’t take your eyes off of it, to be sure. That, “…the nihilism of Bergman and the bloodthirstiness of Mel Gibson” is unquestionably in play, which is why it’s so captivating. I don’t know if I ever want to re-visit it, but glad I did see this Refn film. Fine look at this, Mark.

    • Three Rows Back · October 9, 2016

      Hey mate, apologies for the late reply (again)! It’s without doubt one of the most visually arresting fillms I’ve seen for a good number of years; Refn knows what to do with the camera that’s for sure.

  2. Tom · September 20, 2016

    Good of you to shed light on this, and while it’s not one I’ve seen you’ve helped me pick another film I absolutely must see (the feature here is so appropriate!) I honestly had no idea Refn was behind Valhalla Rising. Whoops!

    • Three Rows Back · October 9, 2016

      Hey Tom! Another long delay I’m afraid! Still finding it difficult to get to the blog (I don’t have a kid so can’t blame that!). Oh mate, you should check this out. It’s unashamedly ‘arthouse’, but there ain’t anything wrong with that.

  3. ruth · September 27, 2016

    I was curious about this one as I love Mads Mikkelsen and he seems perfect for the role. But it might be too intense/bloody for me. It seems that Refn’s films aren’t my cup of tea because of its extreme gore. The scenery does look beautiful though, reminds me of this tiny film Beowulf & Grendel by an Icelandic director that’s shot in Iceland.

    • Three Rows Back · October 9, 2016

      Hello Ruth! Sorry for the long delay. Yeah, think it might be a bit much for you from a blood ‘n’ guts perspective! The scenery is stunning; Scotland has never looked so beautiful.

  4. The Double Take · October 6, 2016

    I am yet to see this movie, but the visionary style of Winding Refn mixed with the incredible Mads Mikkelsen makes this high on my priority list of must sees. Great to have read your take on it!

    • Three Rows Back · October 9, 2016

      Thanks for the feedback buddy. Glad you enjoyed the read! Let me know what you think when you do watch it.

  5. Victor De Leon · October 23, 2016

    In my queue. Thanks!

  6. thoughtsallsorts · November 19

    This one has been near the top of my To Watch list for ages now…just haven’t had the chance but after reading your review I think I might just try watch it this weekend!

    • Three Rows Back · December 7

      Hope you got to see it – let me know what you think if you did!

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