Thursday, July 22, 2010


By: Mediasaurus Rex

VALHALLA RISING is a brooding Danish film that is downright mesmerizing to behold. Few words are spoken, religious symbols such a crosses and the full immersion into water are heavily used, and raw, vibrant hand to hand combat is reveled in. If VALHALLA RISING were packaged and sent back in time 30 or 40 years, it would have fit in perfectly alongside the works of Werner Herzog and Alejandro Jodorowski. In fact, VALHALLA RISING owes the bulk of its ruminating spirit to AGUIRRE THE WRATH OF GOD and EL TOPO. Sergio Leone’s meandering spaghetti westerns also figure into this pot of moody gumbo as well. The film is lean on time and dialogue and extremely heavy with ambiguous symbolic messages wide open to all sorts of interpretation.

Imagine my surprise when I settled in to watch VALHALLA RISING, expecting to see some more quirky BRONSON-esque antics courtesy of director Nicolas Winding Refn. However, VALHALLA RISING is about as far from BRONSON as possible. The differences are innumerable. The tone, era, and message of the films are in serious contrast. But both films demonstrate a deep comprehension of flesh on flesh violence. The opening words onscreen read, “In the beginning there was only man and nature. Men came bearing crosses and drove the heathen to the fringes of the earth.” The operative word here is “fringes” which also references the caliber of person that this film is concerned with.

Mads Mikkelson is One-Eye, a mute, tribal-tattooed, one-eyed prisoner who has spent the last five years of his life as a neck-chained combatant in some first century blood matches. He is the prisoner of a pack of gambling, multi-god worshipping pagans. One-Eye is brutal. With a reverse question-mark scar on the right side of his face and some hacked-up, gnarly scar-tissue over his left eye socket, he dispatches his victims with his bare hands or any blunt object he can find. “He is driven by hate, that’s how he survives, why he never loses,” muses one of One-Eye’s captors.

One-Eye manages a neck-breaking scene that is so horrific, barbaric, and original that it forces the viewer to consider how writers Nicolas Winding Refn and Ray Jacobsen came up with such a method of dispatch. The scenes of violence in this film display brain matter, disembowelment, and all sorts of splatter. The foley work is top-notch, and the fleshy impact an axe blade makes sounds so full and wet that those without intestinal fortitude, despite covering their eyes, are not spared.

Through a sequence of extreme bloodletting, One-Eye secures his freedom. Pulling on a leather vest that looks straight out of a Renaissance festival, he throws his lot in with a band of Christian Vikings who are off to find “New Jerusalem” and establish God’s rule there. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this film is that these Christian Vikings are just as vicious as the pagans. For a film lacking in dialogue, these guys really do bring the f-bomb. It is rather clear that wherever these bloodthirsty missionaries go, the theme is going to be much more like a BLACK ROBE remix than anything that Jesus was talking about in the New Testament. They speak of women and murder, yet pray fervently for God to work with them. The mood is reminiscent of THE MISSION starring a war-mongering Robert DeNiro. When this band of men finally lands on the shores of North America, there are different gods afoot, and these Christians really aren’t up to the task.

VALHALLA RISING starts in what appears to be the first or second century Scotland. One-Eye is fed and tended by a young boy (Maarten Stevenson) who soon becomes One-Eye’s voice. The first thing he tells the Christians that One-Eye was brought up from hell. The relationship between One-Eye and the boy continues to become more and more intimate as the film progresses. The film is broken into chapters with names like “Wrath,” “The Holy Land,” ”The Men of God,” and “Hell.” Such obvious, angsty religious posturing is left wide open for interpretation. As the chapters progress, the similarities of VALHALLA RISING to APOCALYPSE NOW are driven home with over-distorted guitar effects straight out of a ‘70s acid trip. One-Eye is on a definite mission, but we are left to interpret it through his barbarism and the directions he moves in. Mads Mikkelson completely pulls off this role which is a silent, dangerous yet possibly even more thoughtful beast than his Le Chiffre character in THE QUANTUM OF SOLACE.

VALHALLA RISING is absolutely beautiful. When a defeated foe’s head is hoisted and skewered on a spear, the landscape surrounding the shot is simply fantastic. The atmosphere is constantly cold and overcast, yet there are moments of heat and passionate red backgrounds as well. Vicious sequences enter and exit slow-motion to accentuate the on-screen savagery. Even the most banal scenes of walking, sitting or pondering are deeply saturated with a stunning natural beauty that makes every shot postcard-worthy. The only time the surrounding beauty is muted is during the boat ride to New Jerusalem, where fog and soundstage lighting take over. The message behind the atmosphere of the boat ride is obviously purgatorius, and once the boat lands, the lush, greenery is again everywhere. There is also a psychedelic nature to the narration of the film, with inexplicable foreshadowing and a general lack of coherent “real-time” information, thereby keeping the viewer constantly off-balance.

This is not a mainstream “action-film” by any stretch. VALHALLA RISING is an introspective journey that leaves the viewer perplexed and haunted. People are going to go and see this movie because the word on the street is that it is violent. The film does have some wincingly violent scenes, but such sequences are actually rather sparse. VALHALLA RISING is comparable to a heavy dirge. It is a poem that ponders existence and its purpose. It also ponders whatever higher power is out there and presents religion as the unmasterable puzzle that it is, fraught with misinterpretations. The philosopher Desiderius Erasmus once said, “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.” One-Eye is not only king, but he also beats some serious ass.

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