The Fashionably Late Review: Valhalla Rising
Some friends had been talking about Valhalla Rising for months. The consensus description was “it’s indescribable.” Finally I just pulled it up on Netflix Instant on the ol’ iPad. For the next hour and a half, I was witness to a truly unique style of storytelling and filmmaking. Maddeningly paced yet riveting. Gratuitously violent yet gorgeous. Nearly silent yet speaks volumes. It’s a little bit Tarantino, a little bit Kubrick, a little bit Apocalypse Now.
Valhalla Rising is the story of One Eye, a prisoner of a Norse chieftain in 1000 AD, made to fight for the tribe’s amusement. One Eye is mute (he literally never speaks through the whole film) but possesses near-superhuman strength and endurance. “Driven by hate,” as one character describes him, One Eye escapes from his captors and makes his way across the harsh countryside accompanied by a young boy, another escaped slave. They soon meet a band of men who are followers of this new “Christ.” These men say they are on a mission to reclaim the Holy Land, believing there are riches and glory to be had. One Eye and his young companion join them on their journey. After a long, difficult, and mysterious voyage, the group finds themselves in an unknown land. As troubling realizations descend upon the men, they each deal with their predicament in their own crazed and violent way.
This mere summary of the plot falls woefully short of conveying what this movie is about. This is a real acid-trip of a story. Foreboding is as thick as the mist that enshrouds our travelers’ pitiful boat. The paranoia they feel upon arrival in this exotic and terrifing new land is written upon every frame of every scene. Droning music builds to unhinged, distorted cacophony.
Valhalla Rising was directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, known for 2011’s Gosling-tastic Drive. I loved Drive and have defended it loudly to its detractors. Having seen this now older film after his more recent work, I can see Refn’s fingerprints all over Valhalla Rising. Deliberate pacing, minimalist dialogue, impeccably developed shots.
Frankly, I’m astonished a film like Valhalla Rising got made. No marketable stars, a relatively unknown director, and a visual and storytelling style that could not be less “Hollywood.” Still… Like the studio did, take a chance. You may be pleasantly surprised. At the very least you’ll witness something unique.