Thursday, July 15, 2010

Norse Allegory: Valhalla Rising

Consider him the original cage fighter. It is around 1000 AD and the Christians are coming, but a band of Norsemen will enjoy their Pagan ways while they can. That includes forcing their slaves to fight to the death in Nicolas Winding Refn’s moody Viking film Valhalla Rising (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Known only as “One Eye” (for obvious reasons) a hulking Norse killing machine lives shackled inside a crude cage far up in the isolated Highlands. He is only let out only to compete in death matches. It is said no man can own the mute One Eye longer than five years. Maybe there really is a curse attached to him, or perhaps it is just gives the lethal savage more time to figure how to kill his masters. Regardless, his current owner resolves to keep him past the five year mark. In retrospect, this was probably a mistake.

After a grisly escape abetted by Are, the young boy who brought One Eye his occasional gruel, the newly liberated slaves fall in with a band of Christians off the join the Crusades. However, when their boat sails into a preternatural mist, the already portentous film veers into some truly murky allegorical waters.

Despite the ample supply of severed heads, Valhalla is not really a hack-and-slash movie. It is more like a buffet of Pagan and Christian symbolism churned through a Jodorowsky film. Indeed, lest we forget how significant it all is, we are periodically reminded by Refn’s loaded chapter titles (“Men of God,” “Hell,” “The Sacrifice,” etc.). Yet, the film’s metaphysical implications are a bit obscure, despite Refn’s agonizingly deliberate pacing, often holding scenes so long they almost become frozen tableaux. Still, cinematographer Morton Søborg dramatically captures the harsh beauty of the mountainous landscape with striking vistas that suggest the ephemeral smallness of man, except for One Eye of course.

Even those who have found Mads Mikkelsen a bit of a cold fish in previous films (like Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky) will have to admit he is all kinds of awesome as One Eye. Beyond convincing, he burns up the screen with raw Nordic seething. Frankly, he is pretty darn scary here.

Valhalla is a strange film that seems destined to find an audience in midnight screenings. Its apocalyptic themes and medieval macho-ness make an unlikely cocktail, but there is no denying Valhalla is the work of a visionary director (albeit one with a heavy hand). He truly immerses viewers in One Eye’s brutish world, giving them a tactile sense of the cold, damp, Godless Highlands. (Why one would want to go there, is another question entirely.) It opens tomorrow (7/16) in New York at the IFC Center.