This film has the most badass protagonist ever… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
First some tech stuff.
Title: Valhalla Rising
Year of release: 2009
Country: Denmark, United Kingdom
Running time: 90 minutes
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Script: Nicolas Winding Refn and Roy Jacobsen
Music of Awesome: Peter Peter and Peter Kyed
Cinematography: Morten Søborg
Editing: Mat Newman
Cast: Mads Mikkelsen, Mads Mikkelsen’s awesomeness, Maarten Stevenson, Gordon Brown, Andrew Flanagan, Gary Lewis, Gary McCormack, Alexander Morton, Jamie Sives, Ewan Stewart, Mattew Zajac, and Mads Mikkelsen’s badassery.
The plot, as it were:
“In the beginning there was only man and nature, Men came bearing crosses and drove the heathen to the fringes of the Earth” – Valhalla Rising’s opening crawl
Somewhere in the Dark Ages, the pagans strive for survival by desperate measures in an increasingly Christianity-dominated world. They gamble on slaves fighting to the death. In this arena, one man is legendary: a nameless one-eyed giant of a man who has never lost a fight. The chieftain who owns him is pressured to sell him because no one ever has ever owned him for more than 5 years, and he is desperate for money to bribe the Christians. The fighter is treated as a caged animal, constantly shackled and under tight vigilance. The only kindness he experiences is from a boy who feeds him. When taken to a bath at a natural spring, he notices an arrow tip under the water and smuggles it back to his cage. He makes sure it’s still sharp, and a plan is set in motion. He continues to survive more and more gruesome fights to the death, where he excels in savagery that scares even the toughest Vikings. The fighter bides his time until he is sold to another chieftain. On the trek toward his new master, he cuts of his bindings and kills everybody in the party, including a pagan priest who first tries to impart a conscience on the fighter. The savage’s reply is to eviscerate the priest and leave him to die. Next, he takes revenge on his captor.
Now free, the fighter takes the young boy under his wing and walks aimlessly through the land. They meet a group of Christian Viking warriors who have exterminated a pagan village and imprisoned the women to sell as slaves to finance a crusade expedition to the Holy Land. The Christians try to face off the fighter but are intimidated by his cold-blooded readiness. They back down, change tactics, and invite him to their group. When asked for a name, the boy speaks for the fighter and gives the name ‘One-Eye,’ which he will be known as for the rest of the film. When asked where he comes from, the boy speaking as One-Eye replies “Hell.”
The leader of the Christian band and their warrior priest convince him to join them because of his great skill as a warrior but also as a chance to redeem his sins by fighting infidels in the Holy Land. They depart on a drakkar boat, but they soon get lost in a thick mist. Desperation takes hold, and some think they are cursed and see the boy as their Jonah. They try to kill him to lift the curse, but One-Eye, ever ready, kills the would-be assailant and faces the rest of the hoard. The leader’s cooler head prevails over his men, and he backs down to make peace. One-Eye has a vision. He fills a cup with the surrounding water, first seen as thirst-driven madness, but they quickly realize that it’s sweet water. The fog dissipates, and they find themselves in the middle of a great river; however, the place seems different from the descriptions they heard about the Holy Land. The party sets foot on land, and soon disorientation, violence, madness, and hell follows.
Valhalla Rising has become one of my favorite films. I find it nearly impossible to speak of this movie without it sounding like nonstop gushing, so if I fail to maintain a professional attitude, forgive me, it’s just the enthusiasm speaking.
The subject of Vikings has always appealed to me, but cinema is not well-served in the Viking genre. A few years before, we were subjected to the dreadful Pathfinder, a film that has no other ambitions then to be a blockbuster with Vikings for exotic flavor made by the less-than-inspired director Marcus Niespel.
But with Valhalla Rising, something different happened. It was initially developed as an adventure movie with every detail of the plot and characters explained; however, throughout the pre-production, filming, and editing of the film, a change of tone occurred that led to the emergence of a film unlike most others, unique in its treatment of the subject and in presentation of the story.
What remained was the tale of the ultimate badass, One-Eye, a character so formidable in his intimidating and fighting of adversaries that he can boast merely with a look. Mads Mikkelsen plays the character to perfection. Never once are you in doubt this is a killing machine, but the subtle, silent characterization moments in body language and small facial expressions lets you know there is a rich soul inside this scar-covered body. Silent acting may be one of the toughest feats to achieve, and Mikkelsen does it admirably.
The rest of the cast is made of very good Scottish actors, all of whom were game to spend the entire production in inhospitable parts of the Highlands and in Loch Ness’s more isolated regions. And consistently, their performances rise to the strange demands of the movie’s plot and style – there are no weak links. Particular notice should be given to the actors Ewan Stewart as the crusaders’ leader, Gary Lewis as the crusaders’ warrior priest, and Maarten Stevenson as the boy and voice of One-Eye.
But more than anything else, what will strike the viewer is that this is a film mostly told though images, sound, and music.
Starting with the latter, the score is unlike anything expected for a period film. The expected thing would be a powerful orchestral score – after all, it is Vikings we’re talking about here – but the film made strengths of its meager budget, going with an ambient industrial score of steel drums, drone sounds, synthesizers, and electric guitar. And it works perfectly. With dissonant sound contrasting with the film’s historical period, the score adds a layer of timelessness and unique immediateness. For an excerpt of the score, listen to these two tracks:
The sound design of the film contrasts very quiet scenes (perhaps a reference to One-Eye being mute?) and sudden bursts of loud sound that often accompany the movie’s brutal moments of violence. A good chunk of the movie is shots of the characters in their surroundings, panoramas of the oppressive wilderness, and low-tone dialogues, with sudden changes to the screams of dying men and the hacking of flesh and bone. The opening fight scene, viewable below, is a good example of this sound design dichotomy that permeates the whole film:
But one could say the visual aspect is where the film excels. I consider this to be one of the most visually-stunning films I have ever seen. Nothing is particularly pretty in this movie; it’s all grim and dark overcast skies, foreboding nature, and brutal in-your-face violence, yet the film’s imagery stirs the senses with its stark beauty and precision framing.
It’s impossible to talk about the movie without mentioning the violence. Even for those desensitized to gore, this movie provides some sick moments of brutality in its uncompromising portrait of slacking and bashing human bodies. The violence is always shown on-camera, and if ever the movie seems to go for a discretion gore shot, that’s because something even more ugly and violent will be shown right after. The film never prettifies the violence, it never shows it as cool, but it also doesn’t shy away from presenting it in all its glory for the edification of One-Eye’s badassness. And there is a point to it all. As brutal as this film is, it never feels gratuitous; it is simply a fundamental part of the story to understand the characters and their world and ultimately to make a point about One-Eye’s character arc.
But everybody who watches the film will end with the same question: what does it mean?
There have been many interpretations of the film since it was first released, and this will be a conversation that will go on as long the film exists. There seems to be no consensus, but I will venture a few guesses of my own.
One can watch the film from a naturalistic point of view: a former slave’s quest to find redemption, his soul, or a sense of self after a life of servitude to another’s will. One rare moment of vulnerability from One-Eye is when the crusaders’ priest tells him that if he fights for the release of the Holy Land, his sins will be absolved and he will meet his loved ones in Heaven. The look that One-Eye gives to him, notorious for actually being a reaction, shows that the words of the priest hit home somewhere deep in him. Is it absolution? Is it the promise to see again loved ones? Who are they? Do they even exist? We do not know because One-Eye remains mute throughout the movie and only speaks through the boy. The fact that the boy becomes his voice and One-Eye never shows signs of disagreement with his words puts this film past naturalism in my view. Something more is afoot here.
I should mention before continuing that the only moment of obvious humor in the film happens when the boy names him One-Eye, and he looks at the boy as if to say, “Oh really?”. The boy replies, “You need a name, and you only got One-Eye.” Perfect kid logic.
This is where the movie is also a very unlikely “traveling buddies” story: the ultimate warrior One-Eye and the vulnerable yet wise young boy, or badass and cub if you will. By the second act of the film, the boy becomes One-Eye’s voice without even a scene to establish such symbiosis. There is a scene when the boy makes eye-contact with One-Eye (no pun intended), and we see they appreciate the company. Two sons of misery find in each other the perfect companion.
This leads us to the more mystical and mythical interpretation of the film that I have myself accepted. It has to do with One-Eye himself. This interpretation is that he is Odin himself, the god-made human, experiencing hell on Earth as sacrifice. And this is in tune with Norse mythology. In Norse mythology, Odin is described as a one-eyed man who willingly allowed himself to subject to excruciating torture and humiliation to gain foresight, a sacrifice for wisdom. Odin was both depicted as a warrior and a wanderer and is often associated with battle and the runic alphabet. One-Eye has many visions in the film that points to things that have yet to happen, scary visions presented in blood red. Suffering through the tortures of nonstop combat during his enslavement shows in his scar-covered body. He is also heavily tattooed with mystical runic symbols. And eventually, he becomes a wandering warrior, seeking some form of wisdom about his place on Earth, which he finds in the form of a sacrifice.
Director Nicolas Winding Refn refers to One-Eye’s arc as the slave who becomes a god who becomes a man. So, one could say One-Eye is Odin personified as man. But even this interpretation leaves some questions open. Is One-Eye aware of his godly nature, or is he a god unaware? Refn does say in the audio commentary that the character lives beyond this movie, and he will show up as another human manifestation of godly will and justice. This happened in his film, Only God Forgives, released after the production of Drive. So One-Eye lives beyond Valhalla Rising, reincarnated.
I find this Norse mythology interpretation fascinating and pretty much in line with what I see in the film. It gives the movie a mythical quality that matches the images’ composition, tone, and mood from beginning to end. The film goes beyond the story of a badass and a child meeting a bunch of helpless Christian crusaders who get irrevocably lost and lose their mind.
Speaking of the Christian crusaders, the movie makes no secret of being also a story of the clash of two religions, one ancient and new to the world, spreading out from both the strengths of words and steel.
The opening crawl blatantly states the conflict between the Christians and the pagans, the latter being progressively pushed back further and further into the harsher, isolate parts of the world; however, the film doesn’t seem to side with either of them. If the Christians are brutal in their proselytism, the pagans are no less brutal in their endorsement of dehumanizing slavery. And later, when the Christians find themselves in a strange land they do not know, the leader decides to crusade in this new land to bring the “primitives” into the fold and dream of a New Jerusalem.
The movie seems to say that organized religion will drive people mad because there are expectations that cannot match the real world, and salvation can only be found individually, each man knowing his destiny without the imposition of faiths that demand the blood of others.
It is madness that meets the crusaders when the Holy Land they seek proves illusive. Some revert back to paganism, some just give up on the enterprise and denounce god altogether, some keep their delusions until death, and others decide to follow the mute man who seems to have an insight into what’s really happening but only speaks through the cryptic words of a child.
But One-Eye himself remains detached from these conflicts of faith, neither a pagan nor a Christian, for he seems as though he has seen the world for what it is and understands beyond the uncertainties of faith.
But in the end, what is salvation? In the world of Valhalla Rising, it is reaching self-awareness of your own place in the world, to acknowledge your regrets, to sacrifice for those who cannot save themselves, and to make a pact with destiny.
Valhalla Rising is a one-of-a-kind film. It is strange and hypnotic as the mystery unravels and a thought-provoking work after you have finished watching. I still find it a small miracle that it exists. And cinema as a whole is so much richer for having a film like Valhalla Rising.
For me, speaking about this film in mere words in a second language seems limited and leaves so much to be said. I hope you have enjoyed this review and that I’ve incited you to finally watch this film or re-watch it again.
This is AsimovLives, signing off. Have a better one.