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.

Review – Only God Forgives

Rarely has a film divided critical opinion in recent years as much as Nicolas Winding Refn’s ultra-violent, religiously symbolic and uncompromising journey into hell.

A bleak nightmare, Nicolas Winding Refn's Only God Forgives doesn't so much enter the void as dives headlong into it

A bleak nightmare, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives doesn’t so much enter the void as dive headlong into it

Following the surprising success of Refn’s man-with-no-name neo-noir Drive, he’s reteamed with star Ryan Gosling, relocated to Thailand and revved up the experimentalism in Only God Forgives.

Although Refn has connected his latest to Drive,  alluding to the fact they both exist in a heightened reality, it actually bears a closer kinship to his lesser-seen 2009 work Valhalla Rising. With its brutal acts of violence, minimalist style, and preponderance for mood over dialogue, the two films share a lot in common.

The ghost-like Angel of Vengeance Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) in Only God Forgives

The ghost-like Angel of Vengeance Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm) in Only God Forgives

Critics rounded on the film at its Cannes premiere earlier this year, possibly out of confusion that Refn and Gosling hadn’t given them Drive 2,  but those who balk at the director’s use of violence and stripped-back approach (most notably his fascination with silence) forget these are the qualities that he’s built his career on. His Pusher trilogy, Bronson and Valhalla Rising are all stylistic works punctuated by moments of shocking ferocity.

Julian (Gosling) is an expat living in Bangkok whose boxing club is a front for an industrial-scale drug operation. When his brother murders a prostitute and is himself killed out of vengeance, the monosyllabic Julian must not only contend with his domineering and contemptuous mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), but also samurai sword-wielding cop Chang (Vithaya Pansringarm).

Julian (Ryan Gosling) on hisslow descent in Only God Forgives

Julian (Ryan Gosling) on his slow descent in Only God Forgives

If Drive was a pared-down story of heroism akin to a dream, Only God Forgives is its mirror image, a bleak nightmare whose self-loathing lead character is waiting to embrace his own damnation with open arms.

Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a modern-day Lady Macbeth in Only God Forgives

Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas), a modern-day Lady Macbeth in Only God Forgives

Indeed, arms feature regularly in the film, be they stretched out with hands open to represent helplessness and a plea for forgiveness, or with clenched fists to show rage and repression. Refn also attaches an Old Testament religious symbolism to these shots wherein Julian is welcoming punishment for his past misdeeds.

This theological inflection is as present as the hellish crimson lighting Refn drenches over many of the scenes. Corridors are given an extra menace, while the empty nightclub in which Julian meets Chang is a barely concealed metaphor for hell’s anteroom.

Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) gets gangster Bryon (Byron Gibson) on side in Only God Forgives

Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) gets gangster Bryon (Byron Gibson) on side in Only God Forgives

As well as being a cop, Chang exudes a supernatural force. Somehow able to produce his samurai sword as if it’s attached to his spine, Chang is referred to as the Angel of Vengeance. During filming, Refn apparently whispered into Pansringarm’s ear that “you’re God”. If he is God, he’s more of the Old Testament kind, the sort who has the power of forgiveness but doesn’t intend on showing any.

Mai (Rhatha Phongam) and Julian (Ryan Gosling) in Only God Forgives

Mai (Rhatha Phongam) and Julian (Ryan Gosling) in Only God Forgives

Thomas is deliciously repellant as Crystal, a modern day Lady Macbeth consumed by a thirst for revenge at the death of her son and a weirdly incestuous love/hate relationship with Julian. When Julian points out that his brother raped and killed a 16-year-old girl, she replies: “I’m sure he had his reasons.”

Pansringarm is eerily non-expressive as the ghost-like Chang, who seems conjured up from Julian’s tortured subconscious. With only 17 lines of dialogue in the while film, Gosling delivers a tightly coiled performance that deviates between submissive catatonia to moments of explosive rage. He has some of the most expressive eyes in modern cinema which can emote pained puppy dog one second and barely restrained psychosis the next.

Accompanied by Cliff Martinez’s typically excellent score (one that weaves in Eastern influences without ever coming across as rote or lazy), Only God Forgives doesn’t so much enter the void as dive headlong into it.