Hey there, I’m Jared. I have 496 movies and shows in my Instant Queue and that’s just way too many. I’m not adding anymore movies or shows to it until it’s empty. So, I’m going to start at Number One and work my way down the list and give you guys a choice of the next five in my queue, in order, all the way to the end. But, I’m also thinking of you and your unwieldy queue and all the movies you want to watch but no longer have the time to now that you’ve become so awesome and popular. Let me know what has been gathering digital dust in your Netflix Instant library and I’ll watch that too. Let’s get to it!
What’s the movie? Valhalla Rising (2009)
What’s it rated? Rated R for exposed brains, religious symbology and a terrible mescaline trip.
Did people make it? Written by Nicolas Winding Refn and Roy Jacobsen.. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn. Acted by Mads Mikkelsen, Maarten Stevenson, Ewan Stewart, Gary Lewis and Jamie Sives.
What’s it like in one sentence? If Terrence Malick directed one of Jodorowski’s fever dreams while…no, fuck it. This movie is pure Nicolas Winding Refn.
Why did you watch it? Between The Juror, Travis Newton, Becky, wtmwtm and myself, we couldn’t agree which was Refn’s best work or whether this one was even any good.
What’s it about in one paragraph? Mikkelsen is a one eyed, silent viking slave who is forced to fight against the slaves of the other clans to the death. He escapes by murdering just about everybody, but ends up with the young boy of one of his dead captors following him. One Eye and The Boy eventually meet up with a group of Crusaders who are heading to Jerusalem to free it from the pagan hordes. They invite One Eye and The Boy to travel with them once they see how fearsome of a warrior One Eye is. After a haunting and hallucinatory boat ride, they arrive at a pristine New World that is most definitely not Jerusalem. More bad things happen.
Play or remove from my queue? There’s so many ways to come at this movie. Depending on your religion, your background, your ethnicity or just about any other line that divides us from just being people, man, you will take something different from the film. But interpretation does’t matter if the film doesn’t work and, on most levels, this one really does.
Everyone in the film gives a fine performance, but Mads Mikkelsen as One Eye and Maarten Stevenson as The Boy really carry the weight of not only the screen time, but the thematic material as well. Watching their relationship grow is one of the strongest through lines of the entire film since they’re the only characters we ever really get attached to. I can understand the complaint about the rest of the cast just being place holders for violent death and, to some extent, I agree, but I also really enjoyed a few of those supporting performances (particularly Gary Lewis as The Priest) and I’m also perfectly fine with the men being used that way.
I really don’t think any of the film is meant to be taken literally, with just about every character or plot beat being fairly easy to lay into whatever interpretation you subscribe to. Mikkelsen has one eye just like Odin, which was initially my interpretation, but as the film progressed, he made choices Odin would have found unbecoming of a warrior and it just didn’t track for me. One Eye laying down his weapons at the end and sacrificing himself to save the boy could be seen as One Eye’s rejecting of that path, but that just seems a little too easy and thematically redundant to dozens of other films. Refn doesn’t seem to be trodding over well-worn paths with any of his other films (Pusher 3 being an exception), so why would he start here?
My next theory was that Mikkelsen was the personification of the resistance to change and nature’s unyielding power of consumption. When one of The Crusaders disappears and comes back painted brown just like the natives, he is instantly a part of the tribe; changed beyond any reckoning for the men. Yet he also claims he can hear the perpetually silent One Eye, which the boy also slowly starts acting like he can as well. Is this because we always try to prescribe meaning to the unknowable or because the longer they’re in this New World, the more One Eye’s avatar of nature becomes crystallized for them? The Crusader was given the chance to renounce his Christian ways and join the natives, but the unarmed and docile One Eye is beaten to death savagely with no compunction and with no chance of assimilation. His sacrifice doesn’t even necessarily save The Boy, all it does is give him a chance to save himself… but the Boy is starting to have visions just like one eye.
One Eye’s visions are what free him initially. He has a vision of himself in the water at the moment where he finds the arrowhead and kills his captors, so we know that the visions exist to keep One Eye free and moving forward. He also sees the Crusaders in the boat, dying from dehydration, which helps him discover that it’s fresh water and save his passengers. The visions save him, yet for what purpose? Especially since the visions also lead him to surrender his weapons and allow the natives to kill him. Again, I feel like the easy read is that he was a sacrifice to the natives in exchange for the boy (hell, even that chapter of the film is called The Sacrifice), but with the boy starting to receive visions, it could also be interpreted that the boy is sacrificing his humanity and will become like One Eye: an agent of chaos, chance and death. Which leads me to the actual interpretation I left the movie with.
I think One Eye is Death. Not the Grim Reaper/scythe death, but every single culture’s interpretation of death manifested in an earthbound form. All of the Crusaders were just lounging around after a battle (which they might not have survived) and invite One Eye and The Boy to join them, not because they want his company, but because they fear his wrath. The boat journey can obviously be interpreted as the River Styx, which makes even more sense when you think about death being the same thing and the same entity to all civilizations and cultures, so therefore the passage into the land of death would be viewed through the Crusader’s Christian filters.
Once they actually get to the New World, One Eye is shot almost exclusively with low angle shots, making him look like a giant, immovable statue, whereas the first half of the film has him being shot a bunch from the high angle, making him look wiry and deadly, but not Godlike. He constantly gains stature as the film progresses. At first the Boy is lonely and invents a two-sided conversation with One-Eye, but by the time he looks at the Priest and tells him a good death is important, he’s not only speaking for One Eye, but for himself in his new station he will come to inhabit shortly: The next algorithm of Death. And look what happens to The Priest, his initial reasons for Crusading were (somewhat) altruistic ones, and when he dies he’s bathed in a single shaft of light from the heavens. The Priest and One Eye have the only honorable deaths upon arriving in the New World, meaning they get to move on from this “Hell” (which is actually much closer to a purgatory than anything). Because of this, The Priest is bathed in the shaft of light and, in the final shot of the film, we see One Eye through a white filter instead of the red one that appears during his visions. I think this is because he is no longer outside of time, but a part of it. He has someone to take over for him and can now live in every moment instead of the one that requires death, chaos and terror. He is free from not just slavery now, but from the violence that constituted his every action.
But hey, what the fuck do I know? Not much, especially when it comes to interpreting films made by much smarter gentlemen and women than myself. I watched The Enemy this week and had to watch a 30 minute Youtube video explaining it to me afterwards and it was all so basic and self-explanatory that I felt like an idiot. But, again, none of these interpretations matter if Valhalla Rising doesn’t connect with you and I think for many people it won’t. I went into Only God Forgives POSITIVE that I was going to love it, but instead felt the same way I felt after watching Malick’s To The Wonder: That the stylistic choices overwhelmed the story they were trying to tell and the film became a self-parody. Watching To The Wonder made me see through the eyes of every person that talked shit about Malick’s movies about how the voiceovers were self-indulgent and the story lines were barely sturdy enough to carry a short film, let alone his 160 minute long behemoths. There can be only so much tone poem. Only God Forgives was the first time I saw Refn as someone way more interested in visual and thematic storytelling than in character and narrative. I know that’s not true because Bronson, Pusher 2 and Drive are filled with indelible characters and searing narrative momentum and Refn’s also not trying to keep the viewer at a distance, he’s giddily asking you to come along for the ride. But enigmatic cinema for its own sake will not carry him through too many more movies…if even one more.
With Valhalla Rising I felt like those instincts were clashing at times, but I wanted to see where the story was taking me. While I was never fully caught up in the character of One Eye or The Boy, I was also able to recognize that I wasn’t supposed to be, that these archetypes were my avatars for some deeper thematic shit coming my way. Actually, the characters in Only God Forgives are more three dimensional and have stronger motivations, but they are in service of a story I didn’t give a shit about, so the movie felt trivial and pretentious to me. And that is going to change with everybody, regardless of the quality of the film because so much of Refn’s work is left up to the viewer’s biases to interpret. My love of one-eyed vikings, Mads Mikkelsen and breathtaking cinematography pushed this one way ahead of Only God Forgives in my book.
How’s the music? The score by Peter Peter and and Peter Kyed is solid and does an excellent job setting mood and tone, but I would have really liked to hear Mogwai’s initial take on the material. The droning, hypnotic score fits the film, but maybe it fits it a little too well.
What does Netflix say I’d like if I like this? Black Death (enjoyable), Hammer of the Gods (didn’t make it 20 minutes in), Arn (tried and failed to watch this), Bronson (loved every second of this) and Shadow of the Sword (starring Jaime Lannister!! I’ll have to give it a shot).
Do you have an interesting fun-fact? During the entire Men of God chapter, the sea was made out of black plastic bags. The magic of filmmaking is ruined by me once again.
What is Netflix’s best guess for Jared? 3.0
What is Jared’s best guess for Jared? 3.3
Can you link to the movie? As you wish.
Any last thoughts? For a blood-soaked acid trip involving vikings, christians, natives and entrails, it’s pretty accessible. The cinematography is always applauded when this film is discussed and for valid reasons. Everything looks like a fucking painting, except not in a 300 type of way, more of a Kubrick type of way.
Did you watch anything else this week? Watching Torchwood: Miracle Day and season 4 of Boardwalk Empire. Both are making me extremely happy.
Any spoilerish thoughts about last week’s film, Citadel? I just wondered if anyone was actually offended by the concept of “Hoodie Horror.”
Next Week? The Conspiracy!