After last year’s Drive head-stomped it’s way into the top ten lists of film critics everywhere, there’s been an increased interest in the previous works of director Nicolas Winding-Refn, and most peoples’ first stop is his previous work, the equally broody and violent Valhalla Rising.
Far from the glossy streets of modern-day Los Angeles that played host to Drive, Rising is set in and around Norway around 1000 AD. So we’re in for fewer hookers and mob-bosses and more big fellas with beards inflicting horrible violence on one another with axes. Which isn’t that far removed from LA, come to think of it.
Our “hero” is One-Eye, a mute warrior with a preternatural skill for murder. I say “hero” because while he is the protagonist, there isn’t much heroic about him. He’s not that far removed from Ryan Gosling’s character from Drive, both being quiet, possible high-function autistic men with a penchant for caving people’s skulls in.
After escaping (and when I say escaping from I mean messily murdering) from a group of men who kept him enslaved as a pit-fighter, minus the pit, he hooks up with a crew of Christian Vikings on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands. His only real companion is a young boy who acts as his interpreter, and the only person One-Eye shows any kindness towards. After landing in what is most likely ancient Britain, the crew finds themselves under attack by natives, and an odyssey of introspection and murder shortly follows.
The film is once again similar to Drive (almost as though they shared a director) in that it isn’t quite the action-fest the plot synopsis makes it out to be. Though it may sound like something along the lines of Pathfinder, this is less bloody action movie and more bloody arthouse film. There is a fair bit of action, but more often you’ll find a pensive, moody tone, slow pacing and exquisite camera work.
Similar to Twilight Samurai or Once Upon a Time in the West, this is really a movie about the end of an era, about a culture, a mindset, an age dying out. The Christian Vikings, in their desperate bid to reach Jerusalem, seem more akin to rats deserting a sinking ship than anything else. The taciturn One-Eye, however, presents a different picture, one that you’ll have to see the movie to fully appreciate. The somber tone of the film makes sense then, considering you’re basically watching a 90 minute epitaph.
The photography, as I mentioned before, is fantastic, making the most of the bleak landscapes. Where the one problem lies, sadly, is what’s been done TO the photography. There’s a lot of image augmentation going on, and not all of it good like a good air-brush job over an aging actress’s Playboy spread.
What you’ll find most often is that selective portions of the image have been digitally lightened so the background remains dark but the characters are clear and well-lit. The end result is that in many scenes, the characters have a kind of visible aura or glow. I’m sure it would have made for an interesting twist if it turned out these were all just overly committed larp-ers who strayed a bit too close to a leaky nuclear reactor, but it probably would have detracted from the film’s overall message a bit.
Less frequent but still jarring are vibrant red CGI blood-splatters every time some unfortunate soul becomes better acquainted with the head of an axe. I say CGI, but they could just as easily be cell animated for how flat and colourful they look. I suppose it could be possible that this is some kind of artistic statement on Winding-Refn’s part, but I’m cynical enough to say it was more likely a technical necessity due to a low budget. Either way, they just look off and distracted me.
The visuals are the only black mark on an otherwise great film, however, and while it doesn’t have the same wall-to-wall stellar performances we saw in Drive, there’s still some real talent on display. Mads Mikkelsen stars as One-Eye, and considering that he hasn’t got a single line of dialogue in the whole thing, he does a fantastic job. There’s also the fact that One-Eye really only has two modes: stare stoically into the landscape and murder anything he touches. This isn’t exactly a role that calls for much emotional range, but Mekkelsen still manages to nail it.
Winding-Refn does seem to have a penchant for these types of characters, though. The stoney, emotionally void anti-hero, less of a knight in shining armor and more of a sociopath in blood-stained…well, clothes. Like the Driver, One-Eye is less of a character and more of a walking archetype, an embodiment of a bygone age. While the characters around him try desperately to change their fate, most of the time One-Eye lets his fate come to him, meeting it head-on. Usually this results in violence and more of those irritating, fake looking blood-splatters.
The ending, however, isn’t exactly what you’d expect, and if you’re expecting the film to climax in an orgy of blood and flying brain-matter, I would caution you not to get your hopes up.
The occasionally problematic visuals aside, Valhalla Rising’s real biggest problem is that it will inevitably be compared to Drive. And while Rising isn’t as artistically packed as it’s successor, it’s still a great movie. If you look at the box and mistake it for an action-packed bloodbath, you may be in for a surprise, just try to keep an open mind and it won’t be the bad kind.