Imagine if you will gentle reader, Sam Peckinpah dragging Terrence Malick and Andrei Tarkovsky off on a booze and acid-crazed binge and the three of them deciding to remake 2001: A Space Odyssey. With a boatload of Scottish (?) Vikings instead of astronauts. And a mute, one-eyed, hatchet-wielding Dane as the monolith.
A grim and grungey voyage deep into the heart of darkness, Valhalla Rising is no passive night at the movies; it’s a brutal, bone-splintering experience that demands your surrender. Opening with the stark title “In the beginning there was only man and nature. Then men came bearing crosses and drove the heathen to the ends of the earth”, the movie drops the audience straight into the middle of a bloody human cockfight. A one-eyed, tattooed warrior (Mads Mikkelson), chained to a pole by his neck, takes on all comers; biting, kicking, gouging, snapping limbs and necks, smashing skulls to jam. A slave, forced to fight for survival in ferocious gladatorial contests by his masters, a tribe of Scots pagans, One-Eye is kept caged and shackled, his only connection with humanity the symbiotic relationship he shares with the young boy (Maarten Stevenson) who tends and feeds him.
When the opportunity for escape presents itself, One-Eye wreaks savage vengeance on his captors, butchering them, before heading for the hills, the boy in tow. They encounter a group of Christian Vikings, slaughtering their way across pagan Scotland on their way to the Crusades, and One-Eye and the boy join their quest to rid the Holy Land of heathens. But their longship is becalmed in a supernatural fog and they find themselves way off course, marooned in an unfamiliar land, assailed by an unseen enemy…
One of Denmark’s most charismatic actors, Mikkelson, so criminally ill-used in movies like Casino Royale, here is an elemental force of nature, implacable wrath made flesh. Never uttering a word nor even making a sound during the films frequent bursts of violent action, Mikkelson’s brooding presence dominates the film. Slowly humanised by his relationship with the boy, Mikkelson’s One-Eye is a man out of time, a relic of the past who’s already passed into myth. Ably-supported by every Scottish character actor not currently playing a TV detective (Gary Lewis, Ewan Stewart, Alexander Morton, Jamie Sives), Mikkelson’s biggest rival in the acting stakes is the excellent Maarten Stevenson, son of Scots actor Gary Lewis (here playing the most sympathetic and compassionate of the warrior band), who gives One-Eye first a voice, then a personality and finally a fragile humanity which will ultimately destroy the warrior and prove his redemption.
Best known for the gritty Pusher films and 2008’s Bronson, Valhalla Rising is Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s magnum opus, an ambitious medieval meditation on violence that’s both lyrical and stomach-churningly violent. Valhalla Rising presents a world in flux, undergoing violent, painful rebirth as the old ways are swept away in favour of the new, upstart religion of Christianity. Less a man and more an avatar of Odin (King of the Norse Gods representing both war and transformation), One-Eye oversees the end of one age and ushers in a new one, an age in which there’s no place for the Old Gods and no place for One-Eye. The strange land the warriors find themselves in may just as easily be the warrior heaven of Valhalla as the as-yet undiscovered New World. As madness takes hold and the men give into their primal instincts, One-Eye becomes a metaphorical messiah, leading them to their deaths and, in some cases, some measure of redemption.
At times as stylised and deliberate as a Japanese Noh play, Valhalla Rising is reminiscent of Oles Sanin’s Mamay while its depiction of a primitive, natural world at war with man calls to mind Terrence Malick’s The New World. With its foreboding score and hyper-real visuals, Valhalla Rising feels like a fever dream or a half-remembered nightmare. Static tableaux frame characters against boiling cloud-filled mountain vistas, lashed by the elements, or moving through lush, otherworldly wilderness, the dreamlike atmosphere intermittently punctured by the sudden, violent eruption of sheer, bloody carnage.
While it’s about as subtle as an axe to the head, Valhalla Rising is an intense, hypnotic, immersive experience and the best film this year you won’t see. It’s not so much going to be released as escape, chase you up a dark alley and kick your head in. See it before it has to come looking for you.
(A version of this review appeared on filmjuice.com)