Film Review

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising: A Review by Nate Hill 

I would hazard a statement and say that Valhalla Rising is Nicolas Winding Refn’s most inaccessible film, to wider audiences. Despite the bleak, impenetrable horror of Fear X and the repulsive, Freudian filth of Only God Forgives, there’s just something so bare and primordial about Valhalla, a skeletal narrative that serves as a haunted shell for a story that is essentially the ‘anti story’, an acrid, backwards battle poem existing in a vacuum of space where genre tropes should be at play, and are mournfully absent. A lot of films set in ancient times just feel the need to give the proceedings a modern flourish, adding humour, bravery and many elements we identify with and are used to seeing. The reality is those times were probably not like that at all, and resembled a level of anthropological alienation that would confuse us. Refn casts exactly that kind of cloak over his film here, bringing us a dark, hollow world where primitive despair swirls about in the mists of the British Isles and the ocean far beyond. Refn is first and foremost concerned with his protagonists, striving to make them unique and challenging. The meek, confused griever playing detective (John Turturro in Fear X), the lonely, pent up vigilante (Ryan Gosling in Drive) and the bawdy, childish, anarchic brawling bull in a China shop (Tom Hardy in Bronson) were endlessly fascinating, but here he takes it a step further into the overgrown netherworld of the human psyhe. His outlet of exploration is a mute, feral Scandinavian warrior, simply called One Eye (Mads Mikkelsen), who is ready to inflict throat ripping, bone snapping carnage at the drop of a hat. This isn’t someone who kills for his own gain or goals though, and it’s in that characteristic that One Eye is different from every other lead in Refn’s tales. All the rest were forceful, extremely aware beings who were out to achieve clear cut goals, even if one of them was just to create as much self destructive chaos as possible. One Eye is a slave, someone’s property, and lays down the carnage hammer only when instructed to by his Saxon owners. This unfolds in a jarring opening act that you’ll need a strong stomach to fight through. The violence is scarily realistic and lands with the same sickening thud that skulls make when Mikkelsen bashes them on the jagged outcroppings of rocks which populate this austere terrain. As two warring clans squabble about who deserves sovereignty over One Eye’s terrifying talents, circumstances lead to his departure from the moors of Britain, on a boat captained by a Scottish warlord (the exceptional Gary Lewis) and with the companionship of a mysterious young boy (Maarten Stevenson). The boat drifts in a lilting trance for miles on end, seemingly headed nowhere, and it’s here that Refn let’s both his characters and audience off the leash and sends us headlong into the crushing blackness of a narrative that is maddeningly impossible to decipher. To try and think it out is to fail right off the bat; One must let this type of story wash over you and discern it’s meaning using the unconscious modes of thought that human beings have sadly forgotten amidst a flurry of science, reason and technology. The voyage across this sea is one out of time, out of mind and beyond rationality, and the land that lays at the far end of the crimson sunrise is one even more foreboding and secretive than the rocks they left behind. Encounters with a strange tribe, moody passages of time where One Eye seems to drift between dimensions of thought and animalistic contemplation, dimly perceived exchanges of dialogue that seem lost and misplaced among the pressing gloom, it all flows by like the fog on the water, making sense as an element existing in it’s place in nature, but unable to be reconciled by our minds, which always need to have the safety net of a “why” to break the great fall of the unknown. Sometimes there’s no explaining, no categorizing, because to do so is arrogant. Sometimes it’s just naked perception and acceptance, if you can bring yourself to that place. Refn can, and what’s more, he can create such feelings, which is what makes him so important as an artist. He understands the uncharted places on the territory of human experience, waiting to be mapped out like the strange new world One Eye and the boy visit, a world which may as well be a different planet to their eyes. It’s in this inaccessibility that he gives us what, although is certainly not his most enjoyable or commercially viable film, is definitely the one that says the most, if you possess and are willing to use the tools necessary to experience it. Difficult. Psychological. Troubling. Hypnotic. Beautiful. Masterpiece.

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