Nicolas Winding Refn’s newest film is a brutal and breathtaking meditation on violence, religion, and the human will. Though the film only contains a few brief moments of graphic horror, Refn is able to make the remaining 95% of his film gripping, tense, and full of dread with the power of beautifully-composed images and a striking soundtrack of drones. The tension never lets up, it offers no safety for the characters or the audience as it hints that any one might be savagely destroyed at any moment. Valhalla Rising is frightening in unconventional ways and it requires a lot of the audience, especially those lured in by the promise of Viking warfare only to be greeted with long passages of quiet, brooding reflection. But for those willing to let the film work outside of its surface narrative, it has the potential to be a moving, transcendent cinematic experience.
The film opens with a series of brutal, bloody fights between slaves. Clan leaders sit joylessly on jagged rocks and watch to see who’s slave will win the most from wagers–think of it as a completely glamor-less, makeshift version of a gladiatorial arena. Locked and chained in a cage or hooded and leashed like a rabid dog when on the march, the film’s central figure emerges victorious in one bone-crunching fight after another. He is a one-eyed slave covered in tattoos and he seems if not resigned to his lot in life, at least patient about his plan to escape. He bides his time, looks for an opening, and when called to act, he lashes out with an almost inhuman fury. Since he never speaks a word, what little we know about him comes from the matter-of-fact images on the screen and from the speculation and tall tales of his captors. They say he came up from Hell, that he is not a man, that he’s cursed, and the film is in some ways vague enough to support those conclusions. But Refn uses those unreliable narrators in a clever way. They paint a picture of a man who cannot speak for himself, forcing the audience to separate the superstitious narration from the spooky and often dreamlike imagery.
In one of the film’s most disturbing scenes, One-Eye frees himself and slaughters his captors, saving the leader for last. The only surviving member of the party is a young boy who follows One-Eye out across the mountain because there’s really nothing else that he can do. The boy is spared from the slave’s wrath, but he has to keep up if he wants to survive. The two eventually come across a camp scarred with the signs of a battle–a pile of burning corpses, blood-stained rocks, and all of a tribe’s women huddled together, bruised and naked behind a large rock. Throughout the campsite the victors have posted white banners with red crosses, and when One-Eye and the boy are asked if they are Christians, the boy answers “yes” out of an instinct to avoid confrontation. One of the film’s strengths is the way that it approaches religion, faith, and the brutal hypocrisy of crusaders.
The recently-converted Christians in Valhalla Rising live in a unique age. They have adopted Christ and the Bible in place of their polytheistic and magical worldview not because they agree with Christ’s message of love and forgiveness, but because they believe that the Christians’ single God is simply stronger and greater than the many gods they have known. The crusaders’ actions repeatedly betray their lack of understanding of the faith to which they subscribe, and a rival band of warriors describes the Christians as barbarians for literally eating the flesh and drinking the blood of their God. The film presents a fascinating look at the transition from one belief system to another in an age and place where technology, literacy, and sophistication have not yet allowed people to make the leap from myths understood as history to stories understood as parables. At first, I thought that the film would be a harsh indictment of Christianity but as it moved on and the crusaders’ moral bankruptcy was contrasted by One-Eye’s harsh but unwavering consistency, I began to see the separation between the characters and the ideas. Though there’s no way to know why One-Eye chooses to join the crusade to Jerusalem, by the end of the film it’s clear that he is on a spiritual path of his own choosing, not dictated by religious fervor or attachment to one side or the other.
On the surface, the film tells the tale of the silent warrior’s ascent from slave to free man to warrior and then leader. However Valhalla Rising works at a much deeper, almost primal level to reveal a story about the struggle of the human will and its power to transcend pain. I was mesmerized by the film’s truly awesome atmosphere, and while the story made perfect sense to me, I had the impression that I felt the film physically, somewhere in my gut, as if two hours of clinched muscles had left me sore and exhausted. After we left the theater, I had a hard time verbalizing my reaction to the movie because it worked on such a non-verbal, and even non-narrative level, but as time has gone on and I’ve reflected on it a great deal the film’s magic seems a little more digestible. Like the “Beyond the Infinite” section of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the space travel sections of The Fountain or the long shots of nothing happening in Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Valhalla Rising works on some level beyond the intellectual, so intellectualizing it only serves to explain part of the story.
There are perhaps many ways to read Valhalla Rising–as a myth about Odin (the All Father in Norse legend who gave up an eye so that he could have knowledge of all things;) as the story of a man transformed into a god through strength of will; as the condemnation of religion extended by force; or as a metaphor for the human struggle to find purpose and peace. I prefer that last one. Though it’s impossible to make an argument that this violent nightmare of a film is uplifting, the final transcendent scenes where the struggle and pain finally come to an end feel like a genuine release. As One-Eye and the remaining members of his party slowly ascend a mountain to the dissonant grind of heavy guitars, noise, and nearly-tribal percussion, the film itself becomes magical as the atmosphere creates something more than just the sum of the sounds and images. There are very few films that have this hypnotic ability to linger for days even after the credits have rolled. Valhalla Rising is one of them, and it’s a tremendous example of what a film maker can do outside of the boundaries of a traditional approach to storytelling. I imagine that stories like this would have been told around camp fires and in caves in pre-historic times and they would have inspired awe, fright, and wonder–the kind of feelings that made these stories legends. In an age where media is consumed in 140-character strings and two minute clips, Valhalla Rising still invokes those feelings which is a mighty powerful accomplishment.